A striking difference Ray Miller: By stressing communication and basics such as getting ahead in the count, coach has helped return Orioles pitching to stature it held when he was last here.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's 9: 30 a.m. and Ray Miller already has laid his cards on the table. Spread about his suburban apartment are the tendencies of Ken Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez and every other Seattle Mariner who might do his pitchers harm. Less than two months into Miller's return home, the cards are dealing.

Back in Baltimore after a 10-year tour of the National League, Miller's return as Orioles pitching coach has coincided with one of the game's most remarkable transformations. In a place transfixed by longball a year ago, ground-ball outs, quality starts and first-pitch strikes have become the rage. The hub of the starting rotation is now compared with Atlanta's and the bullpen is considered as deep as any.

"A lot of people have talked about our acquisitions of Eric Davis, Jimmy Key and Mike Bordick," says assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "Probably equal to those was bringing aboard Ray. He might have been the most strategic acquisition we made last winter."

Thus far Orioles pitching has been a solid blend of balance, experience and relative health. The club has passed the quarter-pole of the season, a yardstick many baseball people believe gives the first legitimate insight into a team's personality. Thus far, pitching has emerged as the most consistent strength.

A year after ranking ninth in the American League with a 5.14 ERA, the Orioles find themselves leading the league at 3.51. The starting rotation stands at 23-7, including 20-2 by the three-man core of Key, Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson.

"These guys have been fantastic," says Miller, whose influence is better seen as careful brush strokes rather than a spray job. "You're dealing with a professional attitude here and it's shown since Day One this season."

"It isn't perfect yet, [but] I think we have more balance," manager Davey Johnson says "There are a lot of areas you can attribute improvement. Defense improves pitching. Balance improves pitching. But I don't think anyone could have done a better job than what [Miller] has done."

If the season's first seven weeks represent a maturing for Orioles pitching, it represents a rebirth for its 52-year-old mentor. A connection to the era when pitching was an organization staple, Miller has supervised a tighter, more efficient staff than the one that hastened the ouster of Pat Dobson last October.

From 1978-85, Miller worked under Earl Weaver and Joe Altobelli. Long before it became fashionable, it was Weaver who devised the profile cards. This is how Miller remembers it. As part of two Orioles World Series teams, Miller is about the Oriole Way, something also constantly preached by Johnson.

'All of us are fragile'

Miller's philosophy is simple. Pitch aggressively, quickly and preferably low in the strike zone. He does not believe in a Lucky Strike unless he's dragging on one between sips of coffee. He uses positive reinforcement as his delivery. Ignore no one, regardless of how good or bad he's pitching, but never overcoach.

"I think all of us are fragile, no matter how veteran you are," says Miller, whose playing career consisted of 10 minor-league seasons. "I think the ones who succeed keep the fear of failure at hand and don't worry about the fear of success. I think the ones that are talented but never go anywhere are afraid to succeed because if they do, people are going to expect them to keep doing it."

Miller finds himself rejuvenated. He works the dugout during games reminding pitchers of fundamental breakdowns as they happen that lead to "gimme runs." Emphasizing such basics as working ahead in the count, holding runners and fielding the position, Miller has helped pitchers help themselves.

"A good coach can help any staff fundamentally, but I don't think a good coach can do much for a talentless staff," Miller says. "The more talented the staff, the more a good coach can do."

Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer describes Miller as "pitcher-friendly," an adjective the Hall of Famer may not have chosen after his first contact with him almost 20 years ago. Then, Palmer perceived Miller as being enthralled by managing, a desire cured by two rough seasons in the Minnesota Twins' dugout.

"He's a very positive guy. He's a very prepared guy. I think Ray has really evolved. He's mellowed out and he's very content at what he does because he does it so well," says Palmer, who won 20 games for the last of eight times in 1978, Miller's first year with the club. "When you get somebody who understands what pitching is all about -- working quickly and throwing strikes -- you've got a lot."

"I don't think it's brain surgery. It's common sense," Miller says. "Today, most people don't sit back and look at a problem and decide what's the best way to approach it in a positive matter. Everything's a knee-jerk fly-off in one direction. Never mind you might be going off a cliff."

Miller carries credentials as long as his perspective. Steve Stone and Mike Flanagan won Cy Youngs during his first term here. During the Pittsburgh Pirates' four-year reign over the NL East, -- Miller oversaw 20-win campaigns by Doug Drabek and John Smiley. Drabek won a Cy Young Award.

Pirates gloom

However, financial constraints caused the Pirates to trade Smiley and allow Drabek to leave via free agency. Neither has tasted similar success since leaving.

"The last five years has been the first time in my major-league career that you go to the ballpark wanting to win, but in the back of your mind knowing that you have to do absolutely everything right," Miller says "If you do, and if the other team makes mistakes, you're going to win. But if they don't make mistakes, there's a good chance you're not going to win."

Pittsburgh's funereal atmosphere also took its toll. Aside from the shuffles of personnel, Miller watched as local apathy swallowed the organization.

"Pittsburgh has great fans. There just aren't many who come to )) the games," he says. "The ones that do are rabid fans. But we could be playing the Mets and there'd be 7,000 people in the stands. That gets tough."

Long regarded as ironclad, Miller's professional relationship with manager Jim Leyland eventually changed as well. The two remain friends, but Miller began contemplating his departure in 1995 when Leyland shifted some of his responsibilities to another coach. The experiment was short-lived, but left a lasting impression. Too often the 90-minute drive home to New Athens, Ohio, became a vent session.

"That was the only thing that ever really hurt me in baseball. It hurt me to the core," he remembers.

No one home in Seattle

Uncertain about his future last September, Miller knew he was leaving the organization when Leyland announced his resignation. Miller became a free agent and soon entertained job offers from several clubs, most notably the Mariners. Miller and the Mariners had agreed on a financial package during last year's ALCS, but rumors of a pending change in Baltimore

delayed his acceptance.

Finally, on Oct. 16 Miller attempted to phone Seattle manager Lou Piniella with his acceptance. In a fortuitous twist for the Orioles, Piniella wasn't home. Five minutes later, Orioles general manager Pat Gillick reached Miller. A two-year contract including a club option for 1999 was struck.

"If I had told [Piniella] I was coming, I would have really been sick, but I would have had to go to Seattle," Miller says.

Who knows where Orioles pitching would have gone without Miller? The acquisition of Key has been a master stroke. However, Miller's return played a part in Scott Kamieniecki's decision to sign as a free agent last January. He also has provided understated assistance to veterans Mussina and Erickson, both of whom had little use for Dobson.

"Everybody here is familiar with what Ray's done," Key says. "He's a guy who's respected when he walks through the door."

Despite Mussina coming off consecutive 19-win seasons, Miller thought pitching down more would remedy last year's 4.81 ERA. Mussina, who insists "I'd like to forget everything about last year," readily agreed.

"Over the past five or six years, there have been five or six pitching coaches," Miller says. "I think because Mike Mussina has won 70 percent of his games, people have come in and pretty much left Mike alone because they think he's self-sufficient. But there's a lot you can do for Mike. He's got a great feel for pitching but he can get sidetracked by things. That's where you need a guy with enough fortitude to walk over and say something privately."

Mussina acknowledges his relationship with Dobson was not productive. At one point last September he abruptly ordered Dobson away from the mound.

"I believe a pitching coach can make a tremendous difference. You're the one who has to go out and get the job done, but his job is to help you," said Mussina, adding, "I think it's safe to say the same pitcher might win 80 games working with one guy and 100 with another."

Erickson's a fan, too

"He's real laid-back. Basically, Ray's left me alone," says an appreciative Erickson. "The best thing is that he works with what you do best. He doesn't try to make you fit one definition."

Miller has adapted his program to Erickson. Other starters throw once between starts. Erickson, a conditioning fanatic, throws twice. In return, some of the walls that previously existed have come down. Erickson has modified his arm position and exhibited a willingness to trust more pitches.

Mussina has rediscovered consistency along with greater command down in the strike zone.

"I've got to think a big part of it is he's got such good credentials," Palmer says. "Any coach will tell you the biggest thing is establishing credibility and trust. Players want help."

"I thought last year a lot of our plans were real fragmented," says Malone. "I didn't see a lot of cohesiveness or a lot of unity. We had a lot of quality pitchers. To me, we've got a lot of quality individual pitchers this year, but they've come together as a staff."

Miller's scouting report

Pitching coach Ray Miller (above) gives his evaluation of each member of the 13-man staff that has combined to compile an AL-best 3.51 ERA. Missing is reliever Brian Williams, who recently was recalled from Rochester.

Mike Mussina's

"the consummate major-league pitcher. ... A four-pitch pitcher. ... Does everything mechanically well. ... Just needs to stay focused on what he does well and let everything else take care of itself, and he's doing that."

Jimmy Key

" A pitcher's pitcher. ... He can beat you when he doesn't have good stuff... or when has good stuff. Emotionally, he's always going to be rock-solid-looking, not only to the opposition, but to his own teammates."

Scott Erickson

"The Arnold Schwarzenegger of pitching. ... He's just a massively strong, hard-working man who's going to go after you with hard stuff. ... Needs to improve on some small things but as is, he's a damn good pitcher.

Scott Kamieniecki

"I love his make-up. I love the way he reads the bat. He's healthy and I think he finally knows everybody believes that... It's a perfect time in life for him to have a good year for you because he knows how to pitch."

Rocky Coppinger

"A big, strong, rawboned kid. Actually a pretty good learner. ... A little headstrong at times. But if you can prove to him that something will work, he'll do it as good as anybody."

Mike Johnson

"Outstanding looking young pitcher. It's really scary how refined his delivery and pitches are for a kid who hasn't pitched that much. ... A very talented young man."

Jesse Orosco

"The veteran who still throws hard. ... Great athlete... great guy... very confident.

Randy Myers

"Has the perfect makeup for a short man. He's getting better at doing some things he hasn't done... Pitching in more... throwing strike one more."

Arthur Rhodes

"A smooth yet awkward kind of delivery. ... Amazing how the ball explodes out of his hand

Terry Mathews

"Thought he was the best set-up man in the National League last year. In the long run, he's an outstanding middle reliever."

Alan Mills

"Just like Mathews, has a great arm and a great slider. We really miss him. When you have both he and Mathews, you can use one every other day and your bullpen is very solid."

Armando Benitez

"A tremendous talent with very little experience on the mound. He's making strides. It's just a matter of consistency because his stuff is as good as anyone in baseball."

Shawn Boskie

"Excellent fifth starter and long man. I think as the years go along, he'll get better. I think he probably wants to do too much for the club right now. ... Putting a little too much pressure on himself right now. ... Great kid."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 7: 35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Tigers' Omar Olivares (2-2, 3.18) vs. Orioles' Scott Kamieniecki (2-2, 3.49)

Tickets: Many available

Pub Date: 5/20/97

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