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A Season in 'L'

Tigers' Maroth is unfazed by prospect of 20th loss

September 05, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

He sits in front of his locker, listens to the question and pauses. The pause is long, approaching uncomfortable. He is thoughtful, wanting to provide an honest answer rather than a stock one.

The seconds pass. The answer is not an easy one, for the season has not been an easy one. With the apparent inevitability of his becoming the first major leaguer since 1980 to lose 20 games, what has Mike Maroth learned this year that will make him richer for the suffering?

He looks up, thinks some more, forms his answer and finally speaks.

"I've learned how to go out there and take that start that day and put everything in the past, clear my mind and go out there and pitch and keep going, no matter what has happened," he said. "I found out I'm pretty strong to be able to handle that.

"I've always thought I was strong. This year has really tested that. It's only going to make me better."

In the month baseball devotes to good teams chasing playoff bids, the sport turns for a night to Toronto, where a horrendous team is chasing history. The Detroit Tigers could shatter the standard for team futility -- 120 losses, set by the expansion New York Mets of 1962.

In Toronto, tonight's starting pitcher for the Tigers, with a name as recognizable at the moment as Clemens or Maddux, is Maroth.

Maroth has lost 19 games.

"The media has got to write about something. It's usually something really good or something really bad," he said. "Nobody wants to read about somebody who's doing average. I understand that."

The Tigers' record is really bad, and so is Maroth's. The ugly distinctions overflow -- first pitcher to lose six games by May 1 since Dave Stewart in 1984, first to lose 10 by June 1 since Dolf Luque in 1922, first to lose 19 by Sept. 1 since Roger Craig in 1963.

But nothing says really bad like the label "20-game loser."

Before this era of five-man rotations, closers and setup men, losing 20 was nothing special. Cy Young lost 20 three times. Walter Johnson lost 20 twice. Phil Niekro lost 20 and won 20 in the same year. Steve Carlton won 27 games one year, lost 20 the next.

However, as the four-man rotation and the 300-inning starter vanished into extinction, the 20-game loser became an endangered species. The tag is something of an albatross now, so much so that most managers remove a pitcher from the rotation before he can lose 20. In fact, Maroth's teammate Jeremy Bonderman, a rookie with a 6-18 record, was removed from the rotation on Wednesday by Tiger Manager Alan Trammell.

"Nobody wants to lose 20 games. I don't care how mentally tough you are," said Detroit coach Lance Parrish, an eight-time All-Star catcher.

"It'll always be on your record."

That is a stigma Maroth insists he can bear. He wants the ball, even with a historical weight attached.

"It will hurt me more to stop than to continue," said Maroth, 26. "I'm still a young pitcher. I'll learn the most by going out there and pitching.

"My numbers aren't going to make up what kind of person I am. You can't just look at somebody's numbers and say, this guy can pitch or that guy can't pitch. I've been able to keep my team in the game. There have been several games where I came out and we were down by a run -- not where I want to be, but at least we still have a chance to win."

Indeed, you can't lose 20 without really bad luck. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of one game and lost. He pitched a complete game and lost. He left seven games trailing by one run and lost them all.

He won four times in six starts through July 17. Since then, he is 1-6 with a 6.43 earned-run average. The Tigers deny the apparent conclusion -- that he is worn down, physically and/or mentally.

"He's not letting circumstances beat him down to where he falls apart," Parrish said. "He prepares for every start like he would if his record were reversed. He's a bulldog. He believes in himself. We believe in him.

"If we were a better ballclub, his record would be a little better.... Hopefully, he can look back and say that one year, he didn't have that much success, but every year after that, he'll be successful."

Maroth is in his second season. So was Brian Kingman when he lost 20 for the Oakland Athletics in 1980. Kingman went 3-6 the next year and 4-12 in 1982, and his career ended in 1983.

In retirement, Kingman has found the fame that eluded him during his brief career. He revels in his status as the last 20-game loser, building his own Web site (www.20game-losers.com), unveiling voodoo dolls of pitchers threatening to lose 20, traveling to games of pitchers with 19 losses to cast a spell in person.

Kingman promises to be in Toronto tonight. The Tigers are not amused by his antics, even if they're all in fun. Trammell warned Kingman that he is not invited to visit the Detroit clubhouse.

At the mention of Kingman's name, Maroth rolls his eyes.

"He can keep the record," Maroth said. "I know he wants to continue as the last guy. I hope he gets what he wants."

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