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8 Upper

Throwing the Game

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/16/2000

One of the few rewards of watching a bad team is that the rare good performances stand out. So it has been, over the last two years, with the work of Orioles' hitting coach Terry Crowley. Despite upheaval all around him, the former pinch-hitting wonder has been a steady positive influence, one of those rare gurus who can improve just about anyone's performance. Last year, he resurrected Cal Ripken Jr., bad back and all, as a fastball hitter--getting Ripken to settle into one stance and speeding up his 38-year-old hands--helping him post career-high batting and slugging averages. This year, he helped Charles Johnson become a 21-home-run slugger and found hitting abilities in Mike Bordick that Bordick himself could never have dreamed of. He kept B.J. Surhoff productive. Crowley is not perfect--the quick-swinging, aggressive style he teaches tends to subtract walks even as it adds base hits--but he's proof that a good instructor really can make a difference. In the whole morass of Birdland, he is one of the few people who's doing his job right.

Which brings us to Crowley's opposite number, pitching coach Sammy Ellis. If successes show up more distinctly against the background of a bad season, failures have a way of blurring together. The Orioles' pitching staff is terrible, root and branch. The team ERA, 5.83 at press time, is the worst in the majors, and nearly a run worse than the American League average. When the front office is sending out for the likes of Darren Holmes as midseason reinforcement, it's safe to say that the pitching coach is operating at a serious disadvantage.

Still, if Crowley can turn a confirmed banjo hitter such as Bordick into a major contributor, it stands to reason that a good pitching coach would be able to wring something out of the O's hurlers. So Ellis is not a good pitching coach. It's hard to get good help these days, especially if you're a petty tyrant who keeps firing general managers. Ellis, though, is not simply another mediocrity in the Angelos stable. The evidence is shockingly clear: He is the anti-Crowley, and his performance this year has been an abomination and a disgrace.

To be sure, the Orioles haven't had a decent pitching coach since they made the mistake of promoting Ray Miller to manager. Bruce Kison, last year's man, was pretty thoroughly without merit. But Ellis is a catastrophe.

Where to begin? Let's try at the top, where Mike Mussina has stumbled to a 7-12 record. Before this year, Mussina had never lost more than 11 games in a season--and the year he did that, he won 19. The losses could be deceptive; the O's ace has racked up a solid ERA and good strikeout totals, and he's been victimized by feeble run support and bad defense all season. Yet he's played with bad teams before, and won anyway. Something else seems to be going on. His last start, against Kansas City on Aug. 11, was typical: The batters staked him to leads of 1-0, 3-1, and 4-3, and each time he gave the lead back. It may be that Mussina is demoralized by his ugly contract struggle with Angelos; it may be that the team's awfulness has finally gotten to him. Whatever the cause, he's been making just enough bad decisions to lose, consistently, since Opening Day.

By itself, this proves nothing. Mussina is experienced enough to take responsibility for his own performance. But Orioles pitchers are struggling down the line--good ones and bad ones, rookies and veterans. With the odd exceptions of Buddy Groom and Jose Mercedes, every one of them is having a season to forget. Sidney Ponson, expected to mature into a top starter in his third season, has forsaken his change-up and has the worst ERA of his career. Journeyman Pat Rapp, who scraped out a 4.12 ERA as a spot starter for Boston last year, is at 6.14 and gets worse each week. Chuck McElroy, reliably mediocre in middle relief for a decade, is at 6.51. Jason Johnson, a promising 8-7 last year, is 1-8 with a 6.58 ERA.

And all Ellis has done is make the mess worse. He let Scott Erickson keep pitching on a shredded elbow, long after fans and other teams' scouts had figured out that something was gravely wrong. John Parrish came up from Rochester, bright-eyed and major-league sharp, and pitched 7 strong innings against the Yankees July 24; he's gotten steadily less effective since. If this is how Ellis builds up young pitchers, the O's new strategy of stockpiling fresh arms is going to be in vain.

That clearly seemed to be the case Aug. 13, as newly acquired Leslie Brea made his big-league debut in Kansas City. Brea breezed through the first two innings. In the third, with a 1-0 lead, he gave up a single through the right side of the infield. Then another one. Then another, which tied the score. Brea was visibly distressed. Suddenly, he started missing the strike zone by a yard, overthrowing. Ellis was nowhere to be seen. Brea walked the next batter, loading the bases. Ellis did nothing. The next pitch hit the batter in the small of the back, for another run.

Then--only then, with two runs home, the bases loaded, and nobody out--did Ellis get off his ass, stroll to the mound, and offer the rookie a little advice. Whatever it was, it was too late; the rattled Brea lasted only an inning and a third longer, trudging off the mound with six runs against him. He was back in Rochester the next day. As long as Ellis is still on the job, he'll probably be safer there.

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