Tuesday, July 06, 1999

Villone goes from stopgap to stopper

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ron Villone has finally made a name for himself, but he has forbidden the Cincinnati Reds from making him a nameplate.

        Baseball's most startling starting pitcher is determined to preserve the status quo, down to the most trivial detail. Until further notice, those looking for his unmarked locker in the Reds clubhouse will have to ask directions or follow the trail of awe-struck admirers.

        Villone has asked that he not be given a nameplate until he has another bad outing. At this rate, that might be late in the new millennium.

        “He's been nothing short of unbelievable, really,” Reds third baseman Aaron Boone said Monday. “And I don't think it's a fluke. I don't think there's any reason to believe he won't continue to do well for us.”

        Villone's scoreless streak ended Monday afternoon at 21 innings, but his reputation as a left-handed Godsend reamained intact. The reformed reliever stifled the Houston Astros for the second time in two weeks — this time, 5-2 — enabling the Reds to salvage a four-game split and retain first place in the National League Central Division.

        Will wonders never cease? Or did some erstwhile schlep sell his soul for command of the strike zone?

        “I've seen Villone a few times,” said Matt Galante, the Astros interim manager. “And that's not the same Villone I saw before.”

One hot pitcher
        Maybe so, but the Ron Villone who has been working for the Reds during the most difficult stretch of their schedule has been a revelation. He took the mound Monday having allowed only two hits in his last 15 innings, and for the third consecutive start would take a shutout into the seventh inning. This despite temperatures that reached 154 degrees on Cinergy Field's artificial turf.

        “I don't feel like I had my best stuff today,” Villone said. “I haven't pitched in that kind of heat before. But it gives me a lot of confidence to know I can be successful when I don't have my best stuff. As a reliever, you can get by without it for an inning or two. If you can get by without it for 5, 6, 7 innings (as a starter), that's real important.”

        Now that quality starters are a more endangered species than the bald eagle, Villone's breakthrough is like finding a Stradivarius at a garage sale. A month ago, he had not started a game at any level in five years. Now, you couldn't get him out of the Reds rotation with a crowbar.

        “I see no reason why he should go backward,” said Reds pitching coach Don Gullett. “If he can throw strikes, he can be successful.”

        The only serious fault Gullett found with Villone Monday was in the fourth inning. Upon allowing a leadoff walk to the Astros' Derek Bell, Villone fell behind Jeff Bagwell and his Popeye forearms, two balls and no strikes.

        Gullett jogged to the mound to remind Villone to stop aiming the ball and let it fly. Bagwell subsequently singled, but Villone had issued his last walk of the afternoon. He was probably within one out of the showers when Matt Mieske broke up his shutout with a two-run homer with two outs in the seventh inning.

        This is heady stuff. On the wrong shoulders, it could be hazardous.

        “We're not even at the All-Star break yet,” Villone said. “It's a long season — a marathon. Right now we're in the middle of it. But you can never get too high in this game because it will humble you.”

Next trial: Tribe
        Villone's reality check is scheduled for Saturday, when he makes his next start against the prolific Cleveland Indians. But if there's a pitcher who's prepared for that particular challenge, Ron Villone may be the man. The Indians cut him loose this spring, and he has not yet fully forgiven them.

        In the locker with no nameplate hangs a pair of shorts bearing the Cleveland Indians insignia. Villone doesn't wear them any more, but he won't throw them away, either.

        “They're a decoration, a motivation, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “They'll be here all year. You've got to remember where you came from.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com