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Dodgers Launch a Major Relief Effort

Baseball: Osuna, left-hander Radinsky are the rescue workers competing to succeed retired closer Worrell.

March 05, 1998|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Life without Todd Worrell finally has arrived for the Dodgers, and now the questions begin.

Although the retired closer was among those responsible for last season's collapse, pitching poorly down the stretch, Worrell had more good moments than bad. Now, the Dodgers must replace their all-time save leader.

There isn't a tougher gig in baseball, and the Dodgers are about to find out if their candidates have the right stuff.

"That's the big question," Manager Bill Russell said. "You have to have a guy who you can count on, a guy who can handle it, and that's what we're looking for right now."

The Dodgers are looking at Antonio Osuna and Scott Radinsky, and Darren Dreifort also has been considered. But Dreifort would rather be the fifth starter, and that's fine with the Dodgers.

Radinsky has saved 36 games--in his career. Osuna has saved four. Worrell had 35 saves last season. And he set the Dodger record with 127 saves in five seasons.

So it's easy to understand why the Dodgers wonder aloud about their closer.

"It's only natural that guys are going to wonder a little about a new guy," catcher Mike Piazza said. "This isn't a criticism of anyone, but it's not a secret that we lost too many late leads last season. We can't allow that to happen again, but you just don't know what's going to happen until someone new does the job."

Payroll constraints put the Dodgers in this position. Russell and Fred Claire, executive vice president, didn't want to break in an unproven closer during a season in which their jobs could be on the line. Claire would have pursued a veteran free-agent closer, such as Rod Beck, if he had been permitted to bump the payroll. But he didn't, so Beck went from the Giants to the Chicago Cubs.

Still, Osuna and Radinsky are accomplished relievers. Osuna, a right-hander from Mexico, and Radinsky, a left-hander who grew up in Simi Valley, have been standout setup men.

Last season, Osuna led the Dodgers with a 2.19 earned-run average. He went 3-4 in 48 games, striking out 68 in 61 2/3 innings.

Radinsky went 5-1 with a 2.89 ERA in 75 games. He maintained 26 leads he inherited, tying him for second in the National League in that category.

They were keys in making the Dodger bullpen the league's best with a 3.40 ERA, despite Worrell's 5.28 ERA and nine blown saves.

Russell had more options than most of his counterparts late in games because Osuna and Radinsky excelled as righty-lefty short relievers. Neither, though, has had the full-time closer role in the major leagues.

"They have the talent to do it, I don't have any doubts about that," pitching coach Glenn Gregson said. "They both have [great] arms, and we know that they can get outs because they've done it time and time again.

"But what separates closers is a certain mentality. They have to want to be put in those tough situations . . . they have to thrive in them. So we're not concerned about their ability. What we're looking at is how they respond to those situations."

They want Osuna, 24, to win the job decisively, so Radinsky, 30, can remain a setup man. Osuna will pitch in most save situations this spring.

Signaling their confidence in Osuna, the Dodgers on Tuesday rewarded him with a two-year, $1.5-million contract, although he wasn't eligible for arbitration until next season. The club holds two option years that could push the total package to $5.5 million for Osuna, who made $300,000 last season.

"I've wanted this for the last two years, but [the Dodgers] told me to be patient because [Worrell] was here," Osuna said. "This spring, I'm going to prove what I can do."

Osuna, who has pitched in parts of three seasons, has a fastball clocked at 94-95 mph. But he is a notoriously slow starter, and he was demoted to triple-A Albuquerque for the first month of last season. Some in the organization believe Osuna worries too much after bad outings, a character flaw in that line of work.

But he has his supporters.

"He is tough and he is ready," said longtime scout Mike Brito, who signed Osuna. "This is the challenge he has been waiting for, just watch."

Gregson believes Osuna, who closed for him in the minor leagues, will thrive because he no longer has a safety net.

"Mentally, sometimes you relax when you know there is always somebody behind you," Gregson said. "But when you know that you are the last guy, it changes your thinking."

Russell and Gregson have a safety net in Radinsky, who has stared down bigger challenges than protecting leads in baseball games.

He successfully battled Hodgkin's disease in 1994. The lead singer for an alternative rock group, he has a 93-mph fastball and a nothing-bothers-me attitude that's perfectly suited for facing Barry Bonds with two out and the bases loaded in the ninth.

Not surprisingly, it doesn't matter to Radinsky what role he plays.

"I've been in save situations for the last 12 years," Radinsky said. "This is only a big deal to the fans and [reporters]. If [he closes] that's fine, but it's not like it's the end of the world if I don't. It's not really going to change anything for me."

But how the new closer fares could mean big changes for the Dodgers.

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