O's bullpen strikes fear into foes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kansas City Royals manager Bob Boone got the first regular-season look at the Orioles' bullpen from an opposing viewpoint, and he didn't like it a bit. That, however, is the best compliment he could have paid to the tight crew that Davey Johnson has assembled to put the finishing touches on a promising 1997 season.

"If Baltimore can bring those four guys in there throwing strikes, they've really got something," said Boone, whose team fell victim to a pair of strong bullpen performances in the first regular-season series of the year. "Every one of them throws hard. They've got some pretty good gas."

The Orioles sent Alan Mills, Jesse Orosco, Armando Benitez and Randy Myers to the mound on Tuesday, and they combined to strike out six over three scoreless innings. Myers was the most impressive, striking out the side in the ninth to record his first of two saves in the series.

Boone didn't have much to smile about during the brief two-game sweep, but he cracked a wry grin remembering the way the Orioles turned out the lights on Opening Day.

"I thought it was going to be a big advantage when they took Benitez out of the game," Boone said. "But every one of those guys throws hard. Anytime you've got that kind of gas, you've got something."

The Orioles certainly agree, but even general manager Pat Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone were pleasantly surprised by the performance of the bullpen in the Royals series.

Minutes after Myers nailed down the victory in the opener, Gillick and Malone were in the Orioles' video room with player development director Syd Thrift, crowded around a monitor watching a replay of the final inning.

"We came down because we wanted to see if he looked as good down [on TV] as he looked from upstairs," Malone said. "He only pitched a few innings in spring training. Maybe we won't even ask him to show up next year."

Myers is famous for arriving at spring training as close to the last non-fineable minute that he can, but he has gotten off to a strong start in both of his seasons with the Orioles. Perhaps what is just as important is that his hard-throwing setup men are healthy and ready to go.

The Yankees won the World Series last year because they had the best combination of stopper and setup man, but closer John Wetteland left the club to sign with the Texas Rangers. Mariano Rivera is one of baseball's best young relievers and should be able to fill his shoes, but the Yankees still suffered a net loss in bullpen depth, even if Jeff Nelson and Co. pitch well in setup relief.

The Orioles clearly gained ground in that area, especially if Mills and Benitez can remain healthy all year. The bullpen has great left-right balance (three left-handers and three right-handers) and it has a secret weapon -- unheralded middle man Terry Mathews.

Mathews is the quiet, unassuming guy who came over from the Florida Marlins in a trade last year and pitched well in limited late-season duty. He was effective though not awe-inspiring last season, but Miller said he doesn't think Orioles fans have seen what he is capable of doing.

"I thought Terry Mathews was the best setup man in the National League," said Miller, who served as pitching coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 10 years before rejoining the Orioles this season. "The Marlins used him every day last year. He may not have pitched every day, but they had him up every day. I think he might have been a little tired when he got over here."

The only problem Johnson may have is deciding which of his setup relievers to use in mop-up situations, since every one of them appears capable of working effectively in pressurized late-inning situations.

"I wouldn't be afraid to put any of our six guys in the game in the eighth and ninth inning," Miller said. "But that doesn't mean that every one of them is going to be great every time."

Sheffield deal over the edge

The Chicago White Sox raised a lot of eyebrows when they gave embattled outfielder Albert Belle a record five-year, $55 million contract, but the $60 million deal recently signed by Florida Marlins outfielder Gary Sheffield leaves room to wonder if club owner Wayne Huizenga has any baseball business sense.

There's no doubt that Huizenga is a great businessman. He parlayed a waste-disposal business into a video rental and sports empire, so you'd think that he would know when to take the big plunge and when to stick his toe in the water and shy away.

Sheffield is a great player, but his track record should create at least the suspicion that the club might regret this deal three years down the road.

Belle, for all his foibles, has proved to be one of the most durable players in the game. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf knew what was getting, a volatile guy who may be a problem sometimes, but also one who will be driven to put up great numbers in each of the five years he is under contract.

It's uncertain if Sheffield is that kind of guy. He's a tremendous talent and has a chance to be the National League MVP this year, but he will have to have four or five MVP-caliber seasons for this contract to make any sense.

And another thing

The Sheffield contract calls for a long list of incentive bonuses, which is pretty much standard operating procedure in the current baseball business environment, but at this point it's fair to wonder what more incentive a player needs to perform than the biggest contract in the history of the game.

The $1 million MVP bonus that was included in Cal Ripken's contract makes more sense, because he probably accepted less to remain in Baltimore than he might have gotten to sign elsewhere. The extra $1 million -- though Ripken certainly doesn't need the money -- compensates him after the fact because the Orioles were unwilling to risk a bigger deal on a player whose numbers could decline as he moves into his late 30s.

Broadcast news

Broadcaster-turned-manager Larry Dierker knows that he has bridge the credibility gap that was created when the Houston Astros brought him down from the broadcast booth to the field. That's why he says he will play it close to the hip during the early weeks of the season.

"I know I have to win the respect of the players, convince them that I know what I'm doing," Dierker said. "Because of that, I may play it more by the book, at least until we start winning, than I will later in the year. I have to win these guys' trust, convince them that I know the job, and I know that. I'm confident that I will do that, but it could be a little awkward, especially at first."

Buyer's remorse

The Chicago Cubs shelled out $11 million to sign starting pitcher Kevin Tapani to a three-year deal last winter. Now, he's on the 60-day disabled list after undergoing surgery Friday to repair ligament damage in his right index finger.

Doctors did try to ascertain the nature of the injury last season when Tapani was with the Chicago White Sox, but the ligament " tear was not detected until he underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test during spring training.

Tapani apparently was cleared to pitch through the pain last year and may have aggravated the injury. If so, the White Sox put a double hurt on their cross-town rivals. They also lured free-agent pitcher Jaime Navarro away from the Cubs during the off-season.

Head games

During Opening Day ceremonies at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, one of the Navy Seals was scheduled to skydive into the park with the first ball wearing the costume of team mascot Billy The Marlin, but the high-tech exhibition went slightly awry. The giant Marlin head came off and plummeted to earth somewhere in North Dade County, and has yet to be located.

The next day, several radio stations offered rewards for the return of the fish head or any part of it. The Marlins, fortunately, had real mascot John Routh standing by in a spare costume, and he carried a new first ball onto the field in more conventional fashion.

Buford steps up

Former Orioles outfield prospect Damon Buford celebrated his first game as the Texas Rangers' everyday center fielder with home run, a double and three RBIs off former Orioles teammate Ben McDonald of the Brewers.

"Today was a good start," Buford told reporters afterward. "Young players get labels, and at the major-league level, my label is I haven't been able to hit right-handed pitchers. Playing in the minor leagues, I don't know what my average was, but I think I hit them OK. As a major-leaguer, that's something you don't do until you play every day."

Former Orioles manager Johnny Oates (do we detect a pattern here?) is giving Buford the same opportunity he gave Brady Anderson a few years ago in Baltimore. He has given him a place in the starting lineup and is letting him sink or swim.

Signs of the times

Gary Sheffield's contract is so big that his agent, Jim Neader, has pledged to use some of his share to buy Marlins tickets for local church groups. Neader reportedly will buy 25 Marlins 41-game ticket plans, but that doesn't figure to make a dent in his commission. The going rate is somewhere around 4 percent, which would make the deal worth $2.4 million to the guy who negotiated it. What a country.

Cal Ripken's contract includes a $50,000 incentive clause if he is named Most Valuable Player in the first round of the playoffs, but there is no official MVP award given for that round. Ripken and agent Ron Shapiro are aware of that, but it was thrown in just in case an award is instituted in the next few years.

The Anaheim Angels have had their problems piecing together a pitching staff this spring. They released Jim Abbott recently and have to wonder about veteran Mark Gubicza, who gave up hits to the first three batters he faced in the club's final exhibition game. That wouldn't have been so bad if they were major-league hitters, but they belonged to local college powerhouse Cal State Fullerton, which is also the alma mater of one of the best-loved baseball writers in Baltimore.

Pittsburgh Pirates reserve catcher Keith Osik can see the difference between the low-budget Pirates and other major-league teams every time he gets out of his car at the stadium. "You look in the players' parking lot and you see a lot of Hyundais and GEO Storms. You don't see many Lexuses or Mercedes."

In his first regular-season home game after signing a free-agent contract with the San Francisco Giants, outfielder Darryl Hamilton already was wondering why he voluntarily agreed to play at Candlestick Park. "I must say, this is the first time I was happy a game ended," Hamilton said. "It's a different experience here, that's for sure."

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