ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Ray Miller is knee-deep into a season that has wasted little time testing him. A second-chance manager of a last-chance clubhouse, he already has confronted a range of troubles, losing ace Mike Mussina to a wart, left-handed long reliever Doug Johns to insomnia, and leadoff hitter Brady Anderson to a 4-for-52, injury-induced slump.
But Miller can swim.
He insists a deflating 6-14 run that dropped the Orioles 10 losses behind the first-place New York Yankees won't become a riptide that pulls under the game's most veteran and expensive roster.
"The only thing I can do is vent," Miller said. "But who do you vent on? Guys who are hurt? I could have individual meetings, and I have with those guys who have done things I didn't like seeing. It's helped. But this is a veteran team. Sometimes with a younger team you could try to scare them into forgetting about themselves."
This team doesn't scare. Miller insists neither does he.
"I go home at night and sleep good," he said. "There's only been one night when I went home and couldn't stop thinking about it."
Miller knows he has been second-guessed. He doesn't read local papers but has clippings given to him by the Orioles' public relations department. He makes no apology for a woeful bullpen performance when the alternative would be to "panic" and abuse Alan Mills and Arthur Rhodes, his most dependable relievers.
"For a while, I didn't have my No. 1 pitcher, I didn't have my No. 4 pitcher [Scott Kamieniecki]. I didn't have Brady Anderson. I don't have the bench I had the first 12 games. I can't rest guys the way I want," he said.
Still, Miller maintained a relatively low profile the first month. He has yet to engage in a nose-to-nose with an umpire; has yet to topple a post-game spread or convene a clubhouse meeting; has yet to give any public display of panic.
Wary of perceptions that he might be looking over pitching coach Mike Flanagan's shoulder, Miller intentionally stuck to a hands-off approach with an underachieving staff.
Miller finally reached his breaking point after Wednesday night's 14-5 pounding by the Cleveland Indians, when No. 2 starter Scott Erickson imploded in 3 1/3 innings and Norm Charlton failed to get more than three outs in a salvage job.
His response came before Friday night's series opener against Tampa Bay, when he attended Flanagan's regular meeting with the pitchers. He gave a sharp assessment of what he has from the league's third-worst staff.
Miller, who doesn't like Flanagan being characterized as "a pitching coach's pitching coach," reminded his pitchers of the importance of first-pitch strikes, changing location and varying speeds.
Asked how deep the problems run, Miller said, "Other than Jimmy [Key] and Moose [Mussina], it's been pretty much staff-wide."
With Mussina and Kamieniecki on the disabled list, the tendency to strong-arm hitters took hold throughout the remnants of the rotation. Short outings followed, and the bullpen got torched.
Miller smoldered. "There's a fine line between overthrowing and pitching good," he said.
Miller is recognized as the game's best pitching coach, a guru less enthralled by mechanics than by the use of common sense and a positive outlook.
As a manager, however, he hardly received a hearing from a lethargic umpiring crew in Anaheim two weeks ago. At times a stepped-up running game has appeared forced. He has tried to build a stronger relationship with his players, repeatedly praising sensitive types such as second baseman Roberto Alomar and refusing to berate others for mental mistakes.
"You can't fake something," he said of his stoic demeanor.
However, finding it impossible to remain optimistic about starters who surrendered a 7.57 ERA during the 20-game slide, he chose to assert himself Friday.
Miller recognizes his season is quickly approaching a breaking point. Either the Orioles right themselves and emerge as at least a plausible wild-card team, or they risk tumbling into a hole that tempts each of their 13 pending free agents to become preoccupied with his own situation.
The reclining position of the manager's chair is no longer an option.
O's ups and downs
Scott Erickson -- DOWN -- With contract talks snagged, he has been painfully hittable. A sinker-ball pitcher suddenly without sink, he has gone five starts without a win and appears lost.
Powerball -- UP -- Two home runs Sunday. Three home runs Wednesday. Five extra-base hits Friday. But without pitching, it's mostly window dressing.
Mike Mussina -- UP -- Staff ace celebrated return from disabled list with 7 2/3 scoreless innings last Sunday. Maybe the rest of the rotation should disappear for more than two weeks.
Norm Charlton -- DOWN -- Tough guy pitched three days after taking a Frank Thomas line drive to the face. The Orioles are still waiting for him to flex muscle against left-handed hitting.
Charlie Greene -- UP -- Greene, 27, received his first major-league start and managed his first hit Wednesday. Pending roster move, however, threatens his status as third catcher.
Right-field escapades -- DOWN -- Joe Carter has become the latest Oriole who must cure himself of Geronimo's Revenge.
Pub Date: 5/10/98