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Oriole Bullpen: Curious Group With Few Common Threads

June 25, 1989|TIM KURKJIAN | Baltimore Sun

SEATTLE — They range in age from 33 to 22. They don't look, act or throw alike. They come from different parts of the country, and each has a rather strange story of how he arrived in Baltimore.

One tends bar in the off-season; one is a mechanical engineer; another works in finance; another plays Nintendo.

One lived in the clubhouse last year in Rochester, N.Y., loves cold spinach and was a renowned blacktop football player from Chicago. One could have played offensive tackle for Nebraska.

One throws perhaps the most devastating curveball in the American League; another throws one of the slowest. One throws a hard sinker, another a palmball. One throws whatever works that day.

One spent 24 1/3 innings in the minor leagues; one spent almost eight years. One is with his fifth organization, and one started twice in the 1984 World Series, including Game 1.

They are Gregg Olson, Kevin Hickey, Mark Thurmond, Mark Williamson and Mickey Weston, and they make up the Baltimore Orioles' bullpen. They're a curious group with few common threads, except they all get lots of work and they each have a save. But they're a big reason the surging Orioles are leading the American League East.

They have a 11-5 record, a 2.65 ERA and 18 saves in 21 tries. None of the five has an ERA over 3.08, and all five have allowed fewer hits than innings pitched. Each has had to work a lot lately, so the Orioles recalled Weston Saturday from the triple-A Rochester Red Wings to ease the load. He threw three scoreless innings to save a 4-2 victory over the Oakland Athletics Sunday.

"They've done an outstanding job, all of them," Manager Frank Robinson said. "They've done all we could ask. No, they've done more than we could ask."

They don't have a nickname, Williamson said, "because we don't want to draw attention to ourselves. Some bullpens have nicknames. You hear them, then you say, 'Let's go get those guys.' We'll just keep going like we have been."

They do have a mascot, however. It's a Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtle, a little green creature that Hickey jokingly said reminds him of bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. Williamson doesn't make a big deal of it but has brought it to the bullpen each game for the last month.

"I'm the keeper," Williamson said.

The Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtle has been busy lately. The Orioles have not had a complete game since April 24 and have three this season: Only the Chicago White Sox staff has fewer (two) in the league.

Robinson said he feared overloading his bullpen, but his hook with starting pitchers is one of the fastest in the league. He refuses to allow starters Brian Holton, Jay Tibbs or Dave Schmidt to pitch to one more hitter than he has to. His theory is simple: Get the starter out before he can hurt you. He's only a little more daring with Jeff Ballard (9-2) and Bob Milacki.

"The question is, should I let a starter struggle, or do you go with a fresh arm?" said Robinson. "I believe in going with the fresh arm. These guys have done it. What makes them so valuable is they can be used in different situations."

Each has his own role, be it closer, setup man, long reliever; yet each has done all of the above at one time. It's a fivesome that makes a combined salary of $718,000 and has 50 saves lifetime, but Dave Parker of the A's said, "They've got some really good arms."

A look at those arms:

--Olson. He's developing into the closer every contending team must have. He has eight saves in eight tries, has averaged one strikeout per inning and has a 0.59 ERA plus six saves in his last 13 appearances.

Olson throws perhaps the most paralyzing curveball in the league. He could have played football for Nebraska, but he pitched for Auburn, was the fourth player drafted last year, spent 24 1-3 innings in the minor leagues and looks as though he belongs in the major leagues at age 22. He hates hitters. Perhaps the only thing he likes as much as blowing one of them away is beating Jim Traber or Milacki at Nintendo.

--Hickey. He's the left-handed short man. Left-handed hitters are batting .133 against him: Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly and George Brett are 0 for 8. He has pitched more than two innings in a game twice this year and has gone less than an inning 10 times. In 18 of his 22 appearances, he has held the opposition scoreless. He throws 90 m.p.h. but tries any pitch any time to any hitter.

Hickey, 33, pounds his glove on his thigh after most every out. He sprints to and from the mound faster than many players run to first. Maybe it's the cold spinach. Maybe it's because he has been released three times, is with his fifth organization and was discovered at a tryout camp in between shifts at a Chicago steel mill. Maybe he just realizes facing Mattingly is more fun than making a diving catch of a pass on cement.

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