Working Wonders : Darren Dreifort Is Closing Game After Game, but Some Say It's Too Many Too Soon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chan Ho Park, the one babe of summer, was sent to the minors for more work.

Darren Dreifort, the other, is getting plenty where he is.

Too much?

Some are already wondering.

At 22, acclimating to his first professional season while thrust into the do-or-die role of a major league closer while Todd Worrell remains on the disabled list, Dreifort was setting a record rookie pace through Tuesday, having appeared in 19 of the Dodgers' 39 games, working 23 innings.

If he continues at this pace, not including the number of times he has warmed up and not been called on, he will appear in 78 games and pitch about 94 innings. The 78 would equal the National League rookie record set by Tim Burke of the Montreal Expos in 1985. The major league record of 80 was set the next year by Mitch Williams, then of the Texas Rangers.

Numerical projections seldom become reality, but there is conjecture that an arm projected for bullpen greatness could be significantly taxed before Dreifort has seen every National League city--particularly after he blew a save opportunity against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night only 24 hours after Manager Tom Lasorda inexplicably used him in the ninth inning of a game the Dodgers were leading, 9-2.

Dreifort, who had pitched in seven of the 10 games on the last trip, including three of the last four, breezed through his first assignment on this one but lacked similar location and stuff when brought back with the game on the line the next night, giving up hits to the only three batters he faced.

Asked about Dreifort's employment in the 9-2 game, Lasorda said that a closer is a closer regardless of the score, adding: "He's strong and can pitch two days in a row." Pitching coach Ron Perranoski said only that the decision was the manager's.

It's all a process of education for the pitcher fresh off the Wichita State campus, where Coach Gene Stephenson continues to chart his progress. Stephenson and the Shockers reached the College World Series in each of the three years that Dreifort served as designated hitter and middle reliever, playing in the championship game in 1991 and '93. Dreifort pitched in 30 of 78 games last year, working 101 2/3 innings.

"College coaches have a reputation for riding a hot horse to death, but that's not the case at Wichita State," Stephenson said. "Our reputation among pro scouts is probably the best of any program in the country.

"Darren always got proper rest. We were always concerned with what could happen if he was overused. I told Tommy (Lasorda) when he was here that Darren would be successful in any role--starting, middle relief or short man--and I told him he doesn't have to worry about Darren getting beat up mentally as so many young relievers do because Darren understands the reality. He knows he can't be perfect every time and that if he does get beat, he knows the best thing for him is to get right back in the saddle.

"I mean, he's not facing anything now he can't overcome mentally. My only concern is with the physical aspect of sometimes pitching two or three games in a row. He didn't have to do that here because we don't play every day and he wasn't my closer. I pitched him in the middle. Sometimes two innings, sometimes seven. He often finished what he started, but he always got his rest."

Dreifort, of course, dismisses the concern.

What would you expect from a pitcher whose mental and emotional makeup draws as much praise as his darting and sinking fastball and who is such a team player that he always remembers to turn his soiled socks right side out before dumping them in the clubhouse hamper?

"I'm happy to get whatever innings I get," he said. "The fact that I pitched more than 100 in relief last year should be an indication I can handle it. The only problems I've ever had with my arm came at the start of a season because it was cold and it wasn't in shape yet.

"I mean, you have to develop a feel for your body, but every pitcher has to throw through stiffness and tightness at times. My attitude goes back to Little League and high school when your arm would be killing you from throwing so much and you'd ice it and go out and throw some more. You might not have a lot on the ball, but that would force you to concentrate more on the job. Those were the situations in which you learned how to pitch."

With Worrell sidelined and the Dodgers hoping for stability from a bullpen that has blown more saves--nine--than it has recorded--seven--Dreifort is experiencing another crash course, to use his own definition, in the toughest of classrooms, trying to take what he has worked on in the bullpen between his frequent appearances into critical game situations.

He is 0-2 with five saves and a 4.30 earned-run average. He has given up 29 hits and 11 walks in 23 innings, striking out 19. He has blown four saves, but is yet to be hammered. "I'm the type of pitcher who is either going to live by the ground ball or die by it," he said.

Sometimes, however, a ground ball isn't good enough. A strikeout is frequently required in the high-wire world of the closer. Dreifort was summoned to a meeting with Lasorda and Perranoski in Los Angeles last week for a lecture on location and putting hitters away when ahead on the count.

"Darren has a major league presence," Perranoski said. "Win, lose or save, you can't tell the difference. With his temperament and ability, once he knows how to cut up a hitter, he's going to be a great one. It's a matter of refinement. We're working to develop a curveball to go with his sinking fastball and slider. We communicate every day and would never do anything detrimental to his career. We'll back off even at times when he says he's OK."

Worrell is expected back soon, which will ease some of Dreifort's force-fed burden, but not the long-range expectation.

Lasorda said: "We don't try to overuse anybody at any point in their careers. We've installed the young man in a very tough position, but we feel he has the makeup and ability to handle it. It's a question now of utilizing the ability in the right way. When he has the edge on a hitter, he has to learn how to chop him up. It's more location than anything, and it comes through experience and application."

Roger McDowell can take Dreifort on a tour of New York, but he is alone on the mound. Stephenson, on the phone from Wichita, said Dreifort will be fine, that it is only a matter of adjusting (1) to hitters far more selective than those he was pitching to only a year ago and (2) to "the postage stamp strike zone in the majors that makes it very difficult to get a called strike and forces a pitcher to throw fatter pitches than he'd like."

Stephenson added: "Darren has to learn to live with that zone and he will. He not only has great physical and mental makeup, but he has the best movement on his fastball of any reliever I've ever seen. He also has a great slider that moves down and in on left-handers. He gets left-handers out big time. I've wondered why he hasn't thrown it more with the Dodgers, but Tommy and those people know what they're doing."

Did the Dodgers know what they were doing when they made Dreifort their No. 1 draft choice last June?

His rookie workload is an indication of how strongly they believe it.

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