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Willie Fraser Keeps His Success at Arm’s Length

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

A month and a half ago, Willie Fraser was sitting in his Palm Springs hotel room wondering how to pack. Should it be golf shirts and shorts for sunny Southern California or down parka and ski gloves for a Canadian spring in Edmonton?

He was getting mixed signals from Angel Manager Gene Mauch, who was obviously impressed with Fraser’s Cactus League performances but kept saying things like, “Willie Fraser is too good to be a nobody on this team. I’d rather he was a somebody somewhere else than a nobody here.”

The implication was clear. Mauch did not want one of his best young pitching prospects to atrophy as the mop-up man in the depths of the bullpen.

But Fraser pitched so well in spring training--he finished with a 2.17 earned-run average and had 17 strikeouts in 29 innings--that Mauch couldn’t bring himself to send the 22-year-old right-hander to the minors.

As it turned out, Fraser wouldn’t have had enough time to break in his foul-weather wardrobe, anyway.

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Fraser made five relief appearances in April before Kirk McCaskill underwent elbow surgery, and Fraser was promoted to starter overnight. Now, with Urbano Lugo demoted to middle relief and John Candelaria on the disabled list, Fraser and Mike Witt are the only starters with ERAs under 4.95.

So in just six weeks, Fraser has gone from mop-up to bullpen stopper to co-ace of the starting rotation.

Sunday, Fraser made his fourth start and pitched well enough to win, but he was on the bench watching when left fielder Mark Ryal misplayed a line drive by Rick Burleson and the Baltimore Orioles rallied for a 3-2 victory at Anaheim Stadium.

Fraser, who felt a slight stiffness in his shoulder during the seventh inning, came out after eight. He had scattered five hits--one in each of the first five innings--and allowed one run. He struck out five and walked two.

“I told Gene and Marcel (Lachemann, the pitching coach) that I was getting a little stiff after the seventh and maybe they should start getting somebody ready,” Fraser said, “but after the eighth, I told them it felt fine.

“The shoulder was sore for three days after my last start (an 8-1 victory at Boston on May 9), and they didn’t want to see me get hurt. I think it was a wise decision.”

Mauch brought in DeWayne Buice, who has two saves in the last week, but two singles, a walk and Ryal’s error kept Fraser (2-1 with a 2.35 ERA) from getting his second straight victory.

“Buicie did a hell of a job,” Fraser said, “and those things (errors) are going to happen. As soon as Mark came in, I told him, ‘Go get ‘em next time.’

“There’ll be days when I’ll give up eight homers and no one’s going to yell at me.”

Mauch was not in the mood to discuss Fraser’s performance--or anything else, for that matter--but if there was anything positive to be found Sunday, it was 6-feet 3-inches, soft-spoken and wearing a mustache.

“He’s throwing the ball very well,” catcher Bob Boone said. “He had the same good stuff he had last week in Boston. And he still had some pop in the eighth.”

It’s probably no coincidence that Fraser has pitched so well in his last two outings after struggling in his first two starts. The veteran Boone has caught the last two games.

“I don’t have any problems throwing to Butch (Wynegar) or Darrell (Miller), but Boonie is unbelievable back there,” Fraser said. “He knows how to pitch to the hitters and I just have more confidence with him catching.”

Fraser was 0-1 with a 6.00 ERA in his first two starts, but since being paired with Boone, he is 1-0 with a 1.06 ERA.

Not surprisingly, Fraser said he has yet to challenge one of Boone’s pitch selections. With Fraser, that means a choice between a 90-m.p.h. fastball, a forkball and a slider.

“I was really happy with the way I was throwing today,” Fraser said. “The forkball was biting a little better than usual, I was keeping the fastball up and in, and when I hung a slider, I got away with it.”

Fraser’s role is becoming more and more significant as the Angel pitching staff self-destructs. Ideally, the Angels would like to minimize the pressure on a rookie, but that’s out of the question these days.

“For a kid, the pressure is enough just trying to feel like you belong up here,” said Boone. “They pay me a lot of money, and a big part of that is for putting down the right fingers. If that relieves a rookie pitcher of one responsibility, great.”

For his part, Fraser is managing to cling to a measure of perspective.

“I try to look at it as an opportunity to show them my best,” he said.

And then he shrugged. “I’ll do all I can, but all I can do is the best I can.”

Who could ask for anything more?


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