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Opening Day starter? Arrieta is ready for the challenge

It's best to start this slice of Jake Arrieta lore with a minor discrepancy; it was either a couch or an overstuffed chair.

The exact piece of furniture isn't essential, what Arrieta did with it and why, that's the point here. The fact that its identity is in dispute, however, is fitting.

Because it's also impossible to perfectly define Arrieta, who Friday will become the youngest pitcher to start Opening Day for the Orioles since Mike Mussina in 1994.

Is the 26-year-old right-hander arrogant or confident? Is he serious, intense and self-absorbed or goofy, fun-loving and big-hearted? Those who view him from afar observe one Arrieta. Those close experience another.

"I think a lot of people see the arrogant side of him or think they see that," said Orioles' lefty Zach Britton. "But, really, he is just a confident guy. And when you get to know him, he is one of the best buddies you can have. He really is there for you whenever you need him."

When he is comfortable, Arrieta can be goofy, confident and competitive all at once. Case in point: The couch/chair story.

This much isn't disputed: Arrieta and his best college pal,St. Louis Cardinalsinfielder Matt Carpenter, were in a friend's living room two years ago before a TCU football game.

They were playfully arguing about who was stronger, with the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Carpenter needling the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Arrieta, who took matters into his own hands. Literally.

"I was joking around, saying I am way stronger than you," Carpenter said. "And then Jake just picks up the couch in the room and starts doing squats with this couch over his head. I'm like, 'This guy is unbelievable.'"

Arrieta laughs at the memory, pointing out that it was actually a sturdy smoking chair, maybe 3 ½ by 4 feet and he and Carpenter made it a competition. If Arrieta remembers correctly, he lifted it 15 times — until his wife yelled at him to put it down.

Classic Arrieta. Challenge him. Tell him he can't do something. Suggest he is inferior.

Then get out of his way as he attempts to prove you wrong.

"I think there are a lot of things that motivate me, but to put it into a few words: I think it is just wanting to be better than I can be," Arrieta said. "Whatever it might be — ping pong, jumping rope, lifting weights, running or whatever — if you can continue to strive and work better than you are capable of being, you are never going to be complacent or satisfied. And that's just the way I am."

"His own breed of person"

That's the way Arrieta has always been, and Lou Arrieta has the pictures to prove it. Arrieta's father saw evidence of his son's intensity the first year he coached him.

"When he started playing T-ball, I took a couple pictures of him swinging the bat at 4 years old. And you can actually see the determination and the 'I-want-to-be-as-competitive-as-possible' look on his face. And he was only 4 years old," Lou Arrieta said. "Whether it was riding go-karts or home-run derby in practices … He always wanted to be No. 1."

Name the stage of his life, and there are examples of that Arrieta competitive fire.

"Any recreational sport, he could win two out of three, but if the third game I won, he'd want a rematch," said Trey Curtis, Arrieta's best friend from high school in Plano, Texas. "He'll say, 'I want a rematch. We are going to play again. It's a fluke you won.' He always has to get the last win, and he won't leave until he does."

Troy Patton, the Orioles' lefty reliever and Arrieta's best buddy on the team, says they compete in nearly everything.

"We get really heated in ping pong," Patton said. "It started out he would lose every one and then eventually he got good enough to where he could compete, and now it's back and forth with us every time. He does that with everything. He tries to master everything."

No one has experienced that competitiveness, or seen the tenderness that belies it, more than Arrieta's wife, Brittany. They attended the same elementary school. They began dating as high school juniors. They attended TCU together.

"You can't explain him," she said. "He is kind of his own breed of person."

Once an elite-level gymnast in Texas, Brittany understands an athlete's non-stop motor. Then there's her husband's overdrive.

"I'm terrible at ping pong, and if I don't take it seriously he gets upset," Brittany Arrieta said. "But it's because he wants me to be just as good as he is. But he'd get super upset if I beat him."

For every story about Arrieta's relentlessness, there's one about his soft side. How he once gave a young fan one of his baseball caps to use to collect autographs because the kid was having players sign aMcDonald'sbag.

Or how he's taken up photography and spent one evening this spring with his mother-in-law snapping shots of the picturesque Sarasota sunset. Or how he has taken his wife to every midnight premiere of the Twilight series movies.

When Brittany was pregnant with the couple's first child, Cooper, Arrieta taped the ultrasound picture to his locker. Patton jokes that Arrieta now puts 50 photos of his 6-month-old son on his Facebook page daily. Recently, he and a friend spent three hours in a Target testing out toys — for Cooper, of course.

"Off the field, he's just the biggest goofball," Brittany Arrieta said. "But anything he does in life, he does 100 percent. He does nothing halfheartedly."

"Working himself to death"

Throughout his career, that has been Arrieta's biggest asset and primary downfall. He was a good high school pitcher, but was overshadowed by other prep right-handers in Texas. He kept working, and for several years took private pitching lessons from former major league closer Mike Henneman, who stressed the mental side of the game.

When Henneman met Arrieta he was impressed with the teen's size and strength. Then he got to know Arrieta's worth ethic, willingness to take instruction, and indefatigable determination.

"If I got into a fight, I'd take him with me if there were two guys against me," Henneman said. "Jake ain't gonna back down from nothing."

In 2004, Arrieta was selected out of high school in the 31st round by the Cincinnati Reds, but he turned them down. He had a partial scholarship to Oklahoma State, but went to junior college to enhance his draft status. He was selected that next year by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 26th round and eschewed them for a scholarship to TCU, where he led the nation in wins as a sophomore.

There was plenty of buzz heading into his junior year with the Horned Frogs, and Arrieta, who by then had grown five inches and packed on 30 pounds of muscle in a five-year span, was gunning to be a first-round draftee.

His workouts and conditioning were already off the charts — "He's probably the hardest worker I've ever been around," says Carpenter. "We'd go out to eat and get college stuff like hamburgers and he'd order grilled fish and vegetables" — but Arrieta took it too far.

He worked out in the gym every day during his junior season. And wore himself down. His velocity dropped. So did his draft stock. Eventually, TCU's head baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle made an executive decision.

"I banned him from the weight room," Schlossnagle said. "He was actually working himself to death. As a professional, I think he has learned the middle ground of that."

"Chip on my shoulder"

Arrieta's sub-par junior year knocked him out of the first round. And whispers that he and his agent, Scott Boras, were asking for more than $1 million sunk him further. Teams weren't interested at that price. So Arrieta attended a draft party with friends and family and became increasingly embarrassed. Finally, the Orioles, who didn't have a second- or third-round pick, bit. They selected him in the fifth round, giving him an eye-popping $1.1 million signing bonus.

He got paid like a high pick, but he'll always be a fifth rounder.

"I would say a chip on my shoulder started to form at that point in time," Arrieta said. "To know that I had a lot to prove and was capable of doing so."

Arrieta almost immediately became a member of the Orioles' so-called "Cavalry," a group of promising young pitchers that included Britton, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Brad Bergesen — all of whom were drafted higher than Arrieta.

Despite his success in the minors and his dominating victory over China in the 2008 Olympics, Arrieta never rose above No. 4 in Baseball America's list of top Orioles prospects, though he is the only "Cavalry" member to make the majors and not get sent back down.

Now, he is the Opening Day starter, a slot that opened when veteran Jeremy Guthrie was dealt to Colorado in February.

"Oh man, all those clichés are true at this point in time. Just the honor that that brings," Arrieta said. "The confidence and trust from the organization that comes along with something like Opening Day starter."

What makes the appointment so impressive is that there was a chance Arrieta would start the season at Triple-A Norfolk. He was coming back from August surgery that removed a bone spur — the size of a ping pong ball with the sides crushed in — from his pitching elbow.

The surgery was supposed to limit him for several months. His goal was to cut that timetable in half. He didn't just want to be ready for spring training; he wanted to be ahead of where he was the previous February.

Arrieta converted his two-car garage into a high-quality gym. He worked tirelessly with a therapist. And when he made it to spring training, he was throwing his fastball in the mid-90s consistently and pain-free, really for the first time since he was a college freshman.

"Having that thing taken out, being able to sustain my stuff throughout the duration of my outings, really, really helps me in a positive way mentally," Arrieta said. "That is going to be a huge, huge benefit for me this year."

"An air of confidence"

His teammates watched his rapid recovery. Their respect grew and continues to do so — a slight departure from when Arrieta first strutted into the Orioles clubhouse in 2009 as a spring training invitee.

While in Fort Lauderdale, Arrieta wrote a blog, mainly for friends and family, in which he criticized the Orioles' spring training facility. He also questioned the conditioning and mechanics of certain big leaguers. One Oriole printed out an entry and distributed it to the team. It got the players' attention, and Arrieta quickly scrapped the blog. But the damage was done.

Veteran Aubrey Huff was particularly hard on the prospect, loudly chastising him for walking around the clubhouse bare-chested. At one point, Huff took off his own shirt, exposed his less-than-sculpted chest and proclaimed loudly to Arrieta that his was the body of an actual major leaguer. Huff's teammates erupted with laughter.

Arrieta learned from his first camp, but also said he never let the razzing bother him.

"From time to time you are going to get crap from guys, and a lot of times they want to see how you react to it," he said. "If you are a guy who puts his head down or gets aggressive or angry when guys are just trying to see how you react as a person."

Arrieta said he believes he has a good relationship with everyone in the current Orioles clubhouse. What was first perceived as arrogance has a different twist now, and his teammates are embracing it.

"He's got an air of confidence about him," said Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, "which is what you want at the top of the rotation."

Arrieta expects to be the Orioles' top guy for years to come. He makes no apologies for that.

Even if he is, though, he promises to keep working.

Working to be the best pitcher and photographer and father and ping-pong player and couch/chair lifter that he can be.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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