Orioles' best pitch hangs in balance of its rotation


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Orioles aren't getting Carlos Perez. Not now, with the Montreal Expos trying to sell permanent seat licenses for a new ballpark. And not after June 30, when the PSL deadline passes and the bidding for Perez can begin in earnest.

The Orioles lack the prospects to land such a quality left-hander, unless they're willing to trade a Ryan Minor or Darnell McDonald, which would be foolish. In all likelihood, they'll stick with the starting pitchers they have, the starting pitchers who were supposed to form the backbone of the club.

It hasn't happened, and if it doesn't, well, then maybe this team was doomed from the start. The Orioles need better from Scott Erickson, continued improvement by Doug Drabek, a complete recovery by Scott Kamieniecki. They need to fix their problems from within, because they won't get significant help from outside.

To that end, manager Ray Miller met with his pitching staff before last night's 8-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The former pitching coach didn't like what he had been seeing, especially from his starters, who were 5-11 with a 7.57 ERA over the previous 20 games.

"I told [pitching coach] Mike [Flanagan] it's no reflection on him, but the success I had last year was that we went into a ballgame with an idea in mind of not having one, two or three guys beat you -- don't give into those guys," Miller said. "In the blowouts we've had, those guys have done all the damage."

Miller's words apparently had an effect -- Drabek responded last night, pitching into the sixth inning, allowing only one run and putting the Orioles in excellent position for a sweep, with Mike Mussina and Jimmy Key starting the next two games.

The punchless Devil Rays should be the perfect antidote for a struggling pitching staff -- they entered last night ranked fourth in the American League in batting average, but ahead of only Detroit in runs per game.

Which isn't to say that Miller felt comfortable. He pulled Drabek after only 77 pitches. And he was still talking beforehand about a sequence in Wednesday night's 14-5 loss in Cleveland, when Erickson faced the left-handed Jim Thome with one out, runners on first and second and the Orioles trailing 4-1 in the fourth inning.

Erickson fell behind 2-0, with the right-handed Sandy Alomar on deck. With a base open, Miller wanted Erickson to pitch Thome carefully. Instead, Erickson grooved a fastball, and Thome crushed a three-run homer to break the game open.

"That's not very smart with a right-hander on deck," Miller said. "I would expect as a major-league manager that my pitcher would not give in to those guys, and not wait for me to walk him. We just can't have those kinds of mistakes."

Miller wasn't trying to single out his No. 2 starter -- he conceded that Erickson was trying to pitch Thome inside, and that every Orioles pitcher but Mussina and Key was making similar blunders. But the manager has every right to expect better, especially from a pitcher seeking a five-year contract.

Drabek, 35, is at a different stage in his career, relying on his smarts more than his stuff. He produced his second straight decent start last night, only to be removed after issuing a leadoff walk with the score tied in the sixth. Arthur Rhodes held the predominantly left-handed Devil Rays hitless for three innings, Armando Benitez replaced him in the ninth, and that was that.

Why is a No. 5 starter like Drabek such a pivotal figure for the Orioles? Because their other options are limited. And because middle-inning relief is such a problem in this expansion season, clubs need their starters to pitch deeper into games.

The Orioles can't rely on minor-league reinforcements -- both Nerio Rodriguez and Sidney Ponson belong at Triple-A. And they're fantasizing if they think they can land Perez, who will be heavily in demand as the July 31 trading deadline approaches.

Perez would be ideal as a No. 2 starter to slot between Mussina and Erickson, but the Boston Red Sox -- a team without a left-hander in its rotation -- is one of several clubs that likely

would make the Expos a better offer than the Orioles.

If the Orioles add a starter, it probably would be a veteran retread like the Chicago Cubs' Terry Mulholland or even Boston's Steve Avery, who is trying to revive his career at Triple-A. Avery was topping out at 86 mph before his demotion. If he can't help the Red Sox, how could he help the Orioles?

He couldn't, and Mulholland probably would just be a left-handed version of Drabek. The Orioles need Mussina to stay healthy, Erickson to snap out of it and Key to sustain his early success. They need Kamieniecki to come back strong, and Drabek to build on his last two starts.

They're not getting Perez.

They'd rather not resort to a Mulholland.

They'll win or lose with what they have.

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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