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Mound of difference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was among the first questions on the lips of baseball observers entering this season. Would Leo Mazzone's switch from the Atlanta Braves to the Orioles leave one pitching dynasty in shambles and herald the coming of another?

Today, as Mazzone makes his first return trip to Atlanta as Orioles pitching coach, the question remains unanswered.

Orioles pitchers got off to a terrible start. And even after pitching better of late, they rank first in the majors in walks and second to last in ERA.

Meanwhile, the Braves are experiencing their worst pitching season and worst season overall since 1990. Mazzone's staffs led the National League in ERA 10 times in his 15 seasons (they finished sixth in 2005). But this year, the Braves rank 10th at 4.67.

In the quest to discern Mazzone's impact, this year's data could hardly be less conclusive.

Mazzone backers point to the careers he turned around - John Burkett, Jorge Sosa, Jaret Wright - and to the fact his Braves pitchers posted an ERA .63 lower than they did for all other teams.

"The bottom line is the guy is good," said catcher Javy Lopez, who has watched Mazzone work with pitchers in both Atlanta and Baltimore. "You've got to give him credit. They said in the beginning that he just had good pitchers but you compare the last few years, he didn't have the same kind of pitchers. He had a bunch of rookies and he still brings that team up to the division championship. What's the excuse then?"

Orioles reliever LaTroy Hawkins agreed.

"They already had the stuff, but I'm pretty sure he helped them mentally," he said. "He knew what buttons to push to fire them up, what buttons to push to calm them down."

Doubters have noted that Mazzone had the luxury of building his Atlanta staffs around three potential Hall of Famers in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. And, he never operated without manager Bobby Cox or general manager John Schuerholz.

Mazzone is the first to say he worked no miracles.

"I was just a small part of the equation," he said. "Just a small part. You had a whole lot more than a pitching coach involved in the greatest pitching run ever in the big leagues. One, you had the pitchers. Two, you had the manager. And I slid in behind them. I didn't put them on the map; they put me on the map."

Regardless of the debate about his impact, Mazzone said he'll enjoy going back to the city where he became famous.

"It won't be like any other for me personally," he said of the trip. "All the new situations that I'm in here, I've looked forward to every series with a lot of anticipation and the different style of game in the American League. But going to Atlanta will certainly be different."

"It'll be fun for him," said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, whose longtime friendship with Mazzone helped attract the pitching guru. "You know, he's got a lot of good memories down there. He put a lot of good time in and won a lot of championships, so I just hope the people accept him for what he did and not for anything else."

Still a Braves fan

Mazzone cherishes his time in Atlanta and still follows his old pupils, Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine, closely. He doesn't know most of the current Braves as well but pulls for them.

"I want them to get their 15th straight division title," Mazzone said. "I do nothing but look in the paper and root for them every day."

Braves pitchers praised Mazzone to the nines during his time with them. "Everyone knows it: Leo's the best," Mike Hampton once said.

But the Braves didn't put up much of a fight when Mazzone negotiated a three-year contract, believed to be worth about $500,000 a year, with the Orioles. His base salary in Atlanta was more than $200,000 lower.

Then, some pitchers and some Atlanta writers downplayed the impact of his leaving this spring. A few younger pitchers even said they were intimidated by Mazzone's gruffness and looked forward to Roger McDowell's more laid-back approach.

"Just because you don't talk about the devastation, that doesn't mean you're glad he's gone," Smoltz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Under McDowell, the Braves were struggling along with a 4.67 ERA through Wednesday. Sosa, Mazzone's prize reclamation project from last season, is 2-10. Only Smoltz has soldiered on as a reasonable facsimile of himself.

If Mazzone's former pitchers have faltered without him, he hasn't thrived without them, either.

The Orioles of the 1970s were the Atlanta Braves of the past 15 years, a consistent winner built around excellent starting pitching. Fans thought Mazzone might help the franchise recapture its past.

It hasn't happened yet. Just last month, Mazzone questioned his staff's passion and ability to throw fastballs for strikes. But he sounded more optimistic this week. Mazzone said he sees starters Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Kris Benson and closer Chris Ray as building blocks.

"The time frame, I don't know," he said. "I think Bedard's a quality left-hander, I think Benson's a solid right-hander that has a chance to make the All-Star team, and Cabrera, after a while you get tired of hearing potential, but that's the stage he's in now. So there's certainly some progress being made in some areas that statistics don't reflect."

Mazzone has his favorite methods. He encourages starters to throw on the side twice between starts (most pitching coaches require one session), and he teaches his pitchers to work low and outside. But he also encourages each pitcher to work to his strengths. If Bedard's best pitch is a curve, for example, Mazzone won't dissuade him from throwing it to a hitter who normally slams off-speed pitches.

"That's basically what I'm doing here - letting them pitch, letting them express themselves, sharing ideas and it'll pay off," he said.

He might refer to something Smoltz or Glavine did in conveying a lesson, but usually, he steers pitchers toward what they already do well. That trust was what newly signed Orioles pitcher Russ Ortiz noticed about Mazzone in Atlanta.

"The biggest thing is that when I got there, he said just go out and do your thing," Ortiz recalled. "And that impressed me a lot that right away, you've just come into a new place and they can trust the fact that I'm going to do everything I can to be as good as I can."

Personality analyst

Hawkins said he's been impressed with Mazzone's efforts to learn each pitcher's personality.

"Being a pitching coach is a lot more than analyzing motions," Hawkins said. "You've got to know what a guy has upstairs, too. And he does that. He plays a little psych game with you. It's not always about working with a guy's mechanics and release point and all that. It's about working with what's upstairs."

Hawkins recounted Mazzone's mind games with a twinkle in his eye but some of the team's pitchers have taken longer to adjust to his teaching style. Rodrigo Lopez admitted having a "different mentality" than Mazzone's. But he said he's realized the message is similar to that of previous pitching coach Ray Miller.

"Stay down and change speeds," he said. "But they have different ways of transmitting their philosophies. I think most of the guys here, we already know what we have. It's good to have a good pitching coach, but it's better to know yourself."

Mazzone has no problem with fans expecting him to turn around the club's pitching.

"I have expectations myself more than anybody else," he said. "It comes with the territory. I'd much rather have the expectations be extremely high as opposed to the opposite."

childs.walker@baltsun.com jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Leo Mazzone file

Age --57

Birthplace --Keyser, W.Va.

Career --Spent 15 1/2 seasons as pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves, and his staffs finished first or second in the National League in ERA in 12 of his 15 full seasons. Named by ESPN.com as the greatest coach of all time. Pitched in the minor leagues for nine seasons and finished with a 53-56 record. Attracted to the Orioles by his longtime friendship with manager Sam Perlozzo, who also grew up in Western Maryland.

THE MAZZONE EFFECT?

The 2005 braves vs. the 2006 team through Wednesday

EARNED RUN AVERAGE

3.98 -- 2005

4.67 -- 2006

NL ERA RANK

6 -- 2005

10 -- 2006

WINNING PERCENTAGE

.556 -- 2005

.418 -- 2006

WALKS PER 9 INNINGS

3.24 -- 2005

3.77 -- 2006

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