In closing, Johnson has balancing act with Myers, Benitez

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On April 17, manager Davey Johnson allowed Randy Myers to face Frank Thomas in the ninth inning with a runner on first and the Orioles leading Chicago 1-0.

It seemed a perfect opportunity to use Armando Benitez, who was warmed up and ready to face the right-handed hitting Thomas.

But Myers retired Thomas for the save, and Johnson couldn't wait to greet reporters afterward, figuring they had been second-guessing him in the press box.

"I know you guys were conducting a pool up there," he cracked. "But I'm the manager. That's why I get paid all this money."

How can anyone doubt him?

Johnson made the right call in Chicago.

He made the right call last weekend in Seattle, when he twice removed Myers for Benitez in save situations.

And he made the right call last night, when Myers retired three right-handed hitters to earn a 10-pitch save in the Orioles' 4-3 victory over Detroit.

Like his team, Johnson is on a roll.

He could have come back with Benitez last night, but none of the Detroit hitters presented the same threat as Edgar Martinez did in Seattle.

No, not even cleanup hitter Tony Clark, who has hit six home runs in 47 at-bats right-handed.

"There's not many guys like Randy coming out of the 'pen that he's facing," Johnson said.

Myers is the closer. Myers should be the closer.

But in certain situations, Benitez is a better option.

Johnson used him in identical spots against the Mariners -- with two on and two outs in the ninth, the Orioles leading by one run and Edgar Martinez at bat.

Most managers wouldn't dare lift a closer who was 13-for-14 in save opportunities, but Johnson got the matchups he wanted, and the Orioles escaped both times.

In a strict baseball sense, the decisions were no-brainers.

The Mariners give Myers fits. Martinez is a career .335 hitter against left-handers. Going by the percentages, Benitez stood a better chance of retiring him.

He did in both games -- on a high fastball Saturday and a hanging slider Sunday.

Martinez easily could have crushed both pitches.

Instead, he's now 1-for-8 lifetime against Benitez (the one hit was homer).

As Johnson said yesterday, "We're going to have to have those kinds of matchups to at least have an even chance late in ballgames."

Such talk, however, is blasphemy in the age of the closer.

For all his tactical skill, former Orioles manager Johnny Oates showed almost blind faith in his short relievers, afraid to disturb their psyches.

Johnson, as we've seen, takes an almost opposite approach. He's concerned only with winning games, even if he agitates his players in the process.

Still, he acknowledged yesterday that the situation with Myers is a "delicate thing," and made sure to reaffirm his commitment to the veteran left-hander.

Myers, 34, is in the final year of his contract.

Benitez, 24, is the closer of the future.

The Orioles need both to pitch effectively, and it's Johnson's job to get the most out of them.

"I have the utmost faith in Randy Myers," the manager said before last night's game.

"I've seen him do too many great things closing out games. His success rate is awfully good. The only way that you would really replace a Randy Myers is if the matchup is not good.

"The next situation, if it's a right-handed hitter, I might let Randy pitch to him, depending on what kind of matchup it is. I'll decide that. Or my stomach will. Some kind of instincts."

In fact, Johnson said he might have started either ninth inning with Benitez if Martinez and Jay Buhner had been the first two hitters. Then, he could have used Myers against the left-handed hitting Paul Sorrento for the one-out save.

But it didn't work out that way.

Yet, Myers seems unfazed.

Last season, Johnson didn't remove him in a save situation until Aug. 30. He did it again Sept. 18 in New York, and Myers questioned his strategy after the Orioles lost to the Yankees, 3-2 in 10 innings.

Back then, Myers was struggling -- his ERA was 4.66 after July 7. Right now, he could make a better case -- he's 0-2, but his ERA is 1.40, and his 14 saves are tied for first in the AL.

He went five straight games without an appearance before the Orioles reached Seattle, but it's not as if he got much rest -- Johnson said he warmed up in most of them.

He finally pitched Friday and earned a routine save. But on Saturday, he was undone by a Cal Ripken error and a single off the rubber by Ken Griffey.

Tough luck, tough circumstances.

And Seattle, with Martinez, Buhner and Alex Rodriguez slugging from the right side, is a difficult opponent for Myers, anyway.

He blew two saves against the Mariners last season, and has allowed 10 base runners in 4 1/3 innings against them this season.

So, should he lose his job?

Of course not.

Benitez likely will be the closer next season, but he's still frighteningly inconsistent, with a tendency to overthrow.

"It's not like you just all of a sudden turn over the reins," Johnson said.

And it's not as if Johnson is inexperienced in establishing closers.

As manager of the New York Mets, he broke in Myers, Jesse Orosco, Roger McDowell and Doug Sisk as short relievers.

Two years ago, he did the same thing with Hector Carrasco behind Jeff Brantley in Cincinnati.

"It's giving them that opportunity, seeing how they react to that situation. That's how you do it," Johnson said.

"I also hate being locked in with one guy to close. You have to be able to have multiple closers.

"If you're really good as a team, that guy can't go out there 10 straight days and pitch."

The Orioles look really good as a team.

One closer is not enough.

Pub Date: 5/21/97

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