NEW YORK -- The bullpen phone used to ring around the fourth or fifth inning and Alan Mills didn't have a reason to notice. His head wouldn't turn. His hands stayed inside his jacket. Call-waiting meant waiting until at least the seventh.
Those days and nights are gone, and there's no telling when they'll return.
The Orioles' pitching staff, minus a long man coming out of spring training and since ravaged by injuries and littered with emergency starters, can't afford such a luxury. Manager Ray Miller will take relief where he can find it, and the situation has been finding Mills earlier than normal.
Of his 33 appearances, seven have come before the seventh inning. Five of them have occurred this month alone, beginning June 1, when he entered in the sixth and allowed just one run in three innings to pick up the win against Seattle.
"You've just got to be prepared from the opening gun. That's just the way it is right now," he said.
"I don't want to say it's a big deal. I've done it before and I'm sure everybody in the bullpen has done it. You just have to make the adjustment, and if you can't you're not going to be here long."
Lately, Mills has been in for the long haul. Long, as in at least two innings. No one-hitter matchups and a quick hook.
He gave the Orioles 2 1/3 shutout innings Tuesday after replacing starter Doug Johns in the fourth. A lengthy rain delay interrupted his run in a 6-3 loss.
Mills' critique of his pitching begins with "not bad" and doesn't get much more enthusiastic from there. This is a reliever who lost two months of last season with a damaged nerve in his neck, who was fooled into thinking the worst was behind him after shoulder surgery the previous year. The less said about anything positive, the better -- whether it relates to his performance or his health.
The numbers are fed to Mills and he nearly spits them out. One run allowed in his last seven appearances spanning 10 1/3 innings. Six runs in 19 1/3 innings since the May 19 brawl against the New York Yankees that led to a two-game suspension. One of 21 inherited runners have scored this season, the best percentage in the American League. He's held the lead all 12 times it's been entrusted to him.
He barely can stifle a yawn. The only numbers that seem to matter to Mills these days are the ones separating the Orioles from first place and the wild card.
"I can go out there the next 50 innings and not give up a run and it's not going to mean anything unless we win some ballgames," he said. "We've got to gain some ground on Boston and New York. We're playing better right now, and we need to go on some kind of a roll. We need to win a few games in a row and we might gain some ground.
"Regardless of how I'm doing individually, it doesn't really mean anything unless we start winning some games."
The words come in a low tone, barely audible. Completely believable. The same pitcher who zig-zagged through the Orioles' clubhouse on Sunday grinning and shaking hands as he wished everyone a happy Father's Day -- whether they had children or not -- becomes morose after another defeat.
"Whether you're in the game in the second or the eighth or the fourth or the fifth, the main thing is when it's over, you want to hear some music in the clubhouse and see some guys smiling and joking," he said.
"We need to win some games right now."
Run of Mills
In the past two weeks, Alan Mills has made seven appearances, yielding one run:
D ...... Opp .. IP .. H .. ER .. BB .. SO
6/9 ... Phi ... 2/3 .. 1 ... 0 ... 1 ... 1
6/10 ... Phi ... 2/3 .. 0 ... 0 ... 0 ... 0
6/12 ... Tor .. 1 1/3 .. 0 ... 0 ... 2 ... 2
6/14 ... Tor .. 2 ... 2 ... 1 ... 3 ... 0
6/17 ... NYY .. 2 ... 1 ... 0 ... 0 ... 4
6/19 ... Tor .. 1 1/3 .. 0 ... 0 ... 2 ... 1
6/23 ... NYM .. 2 1/3 .. 2 ... 0 ... 0 ... 1
Tot. ......... 10 1/3 .. 6 ... 1 ... 8 ... 9
Pub Date: 6/25/98