MONTREAL -- For those who believe the Orioles' bullpen is the place where arms go to die, Jesse Orosco represents a nice comeback.
The ancient left-hander has quietly constructed a dominant run within a reputed Hard Hat Zone that has recently come under fire from all quarters, including the manager's office. Only five pitchers in the game's history have appeared in more games than Orosco's 989. Even fewer within the Orioles' pitching staff have given a more competent accounting than the 41-year-old whose career contains a permanent rollover.
"I'm pretty happy with the way things have been going," said Orosco, who has a 1-0 record and a 3.42 ERA, second-lowest to Arthur Rhodes on the Orioles' staff. "There have been times this year, especially early, when I wasn't satisfied with my results. But I've made some adjustments to improve."
Orosco has bounced all over the bullpen this season. He has Orosco five saves, only three fewer than closer Armando Benitez, but endured a temporary exile when he became ineffective against left-handed hitters.
Orosco's specialized role has long been to eliminate left-handed hitters. He rarely enters against right-handers. Proof of his effectiveness comes from his ability to retire 13 of his last 16 first batters faced after beginning the season with a shaky 7-for-17 performance.
As the remainder of the bullpen has been torched in middle innings, Orosco has allowed only two runs since May 17, both on back-to-back home runs in Toronto on June 12.
"When I've had problems this year, it's been with concentration," Orosco said. "When I've been able to keep focused and get myself prepared, I've been fine."
Orosco was initially prone to falling behind in counts, then becoming very hittable. His turnaround from a sluggish start coincided with pitching coach Mike Flanagan showing Orosco a statistical breakdown that showed the league hit nearly .500 against him after he threw a first-pitch ball. The number was below .200 after a first-pitch strike.
"There were a couple of blowout games when I came in and really didn't have everything going. I didn't prepare myself properly," he admitted. "Of course, I was in that position after not having pitched well."
The fourth-oldest player to wear an Orioles uniform, Orosco is on pace for 66 appearances, which would vest his contract for the 1999 season. He retains a live fastball that he says is harder now than 10 years ago. He also knows he is beating the actuarial tables for his profession.
"Every winter I go home and think about it. I'll be in the back yard throwing and I'll wonder if one day I'll pick up the ball and my 90-mph fastball will be a 70-mph fastball. But I've been asking that for years. Maybe it won't happen."
Whether Orosco returns in an Orioles uniform may be determined by whether the team can remain a wild-card contender beyond July. If not, Orosco may become a popular trade target.
"I don't know what that would mean for someone in my position," he said. "I'd like to end my career here, but I know teams will be looking for arms. Hopefully, we'll be in a position to be acquiring people instead of letting them go. But you have to prepare yourself for everything."
The Atlanta Braves appear a possible match with the Orioles in several areas. They have a need for a leadoff hitter/second baseman, and with the recent trade of Alan Embree, they also find themselves thin in left-handed relief.
Riding the margins of a still-productive career, Orosco fully understands the many meanings of being prepared.
Pub Date: 6/27/98