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McCaskill Embarks on Salvage Mission : Angels: Right-hander plans to take small steps in the long journey to a respectable record.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He took his guilt to the mound with his glove and his game plan, magnifying his problems until they threatened to consume him.

The more Kirk McCaskill lost, the more anxious he became to erase a bad month with one good inning. The more desperately the Angel right-hander approached each start, the less likely he was to win and the fewer games he won.

McCaskill, who will start against the Brewers tonight the opener of the Angels’ six-game trip, leads the major leagues with 16 losses and is three short of equaling the club record for defeats in a season. It’s as unlikely as it is embarrassing for McCaskill, who ranks fifth in club history with 78 victories and sixth in innings pitched with 1,205 2/3, because he’s fit and free of elbow problems for the first time in years.

Last season, pain caused by bone spurs forced McCaskill--once an All-American hockey player at the University of Vermont--to revert to what he called “the hockey mentality,” the credo that you play until you drop. Those memories helped him compile a 12-11 record and a respectable 3.25 earned-run average; surgery last October restored full extension in his arm and a strong spring promised a successful summer.

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But after a decent beginning, McCaskill fell into an abyss in June. In one stretch, he lost eight of nine decisions. Nothing stopped his fall, not tinkering with his delivery and not deprecating his efforts by saying he led the universe in losses, as he concluded in a particularly dark moment.

“I was 6-5 when it started to happen,” McCaskill said. “It seemed almost like Mark (Langston’s) year last year, where I pitched well enough to win some games, pitched some games that sometimes you get a break and get a no-decision or a win and I’d get a loss, and I pitched some games I didn’t deserve to be out there.

“I tend to internalize most everything. I started looking for reasons, answers. The next thing I knew, I started carrying way more out there than I needed to. I started saying, ‘I let the team down. I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to get back to .500, I’ve got to win six in a row to get back to .500,’ when the object of the game is one pitch at a time. I know I keep harping on that, but that’s when I do best, when I think of it that way.”

Reducing his task to one pitch, one batter, one inning, was elemental to his success last Saturday, when he pitched eight innings in a 1-0 victory over Boston at Anaheim Stadium. It took a 3 1/2-hour talk with Ken Ravizza, the Angels’ sports psychology instructor, and a soul-baring session with teammate Bert Blyleven for McCaskill to realize he had complicated his job when simplifying things was called for.

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“After the Seattle game (a 7-1 loss Aug. 19) when I lost my composure on the mound--which I was not happy about because that’s not me--I had a long talk with Ken Ravizza in Oakland,” McCaskill said. “That helped a lot. And I talked to Bert, who kind of brought it back to simplicity.

“He pointed out to me that I wasn’t getting ahead of hitters. He said, ‘You’re making it way too hard. Get ahead and throw strikes.’ He sat next to me in the dugout the last time Jim Abbott pitched, and each time he threw a first-pitch strike Bert would yell, ‘Mac!’ to the point where I wanted to say ‘Shut up.’ But he really convinced me to throw a strike on the first pitch and whatever happens, happens.”

McCaskill admits he pressured himself to win, but not, he insists, to gain a financial bonanza as a free agent this winter. He filed for arbitration last winter, but signed a one-year, $2.1-million contract before a hearing.

“Was it weighing on my mind all the time? No. Was I thinking I’m costing myself money? Not at all,” said McCaskill, who lives in Corona del Mar with his wife, Dana, and their young son. “This game has afforded me a good living and we’ve been conservative with how we’ve spent our money. I had enough money. It boiled down to personal pride. I don’t believe in a salary drive. You’re here to play as long and as hard as you can. If you’re playing for a salary drive, it’s for the wrong reasons.

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“I can live with myself if I don’t go out there with great stuff, but I battled as hard as I could. Sometimes it’s not good enough. That’s happened more often this year than any other in my career.”

The Angels haven’t initiated contract talks and they may not, having at least listened to trade offers for him in recent weeks. He professed not to be worried, saying his allegiance to the team remains intact.

“I really am an employee-employer type person. The Angels are paying me a lot of money and I’m extremely loyal,” he said. “I can’t say I haven’t thought about places I’d want to play, but I feel I’d be cheating the Angels if I thought about it a lot.”

The dismissal of Doug Rader as manager last Monday led him to think about his own future, although he’s not sure what he will do besides giving his wife a chance to resume an acting career she interrupted early in their marriage.

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“To see Doug get fired embeds in your mind that someday it’s going to happen to everybody,” McCaskill said. “I read the transactions in the newspapers. A 14-, 15-year career is summed up in two sentences, ‘So-and-so was given his release.’ To that guy, it meant a lot. . . . This game gives you enough money and affords you a chance to do what you want. I think I’ll be all right. I think I have enough intelligence to find something I want to do. Whether it’s digging ditches, I’ll have the opportunity to do it because of the nature of today’s salaries.”

His 10-16 record and 4.16 ERA may not make him richer financially, but this season has made him richer emotionally.

“One thing I talked about with Ken Ravizza is that I can look at this either as a crisis or an opportunity, a challenge,” McCaskill said. “I’ve challenged myself to salvage this season.”


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