ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- After three games of the exhibition season, Mike Cook already qualifies as a special project for Orioles manager Johnny Oates.
It was by design, not accident, that the 29-year-old right-hander made his second appearance of the spring yesterday. Cook pitched a scoreless ninth inning, as the Orioles lost to the St. Louis Cardinals for the second straight day, 3-0.
Cook had pitched two innings without allowing a run in the Orioles' first game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday. Though not unusual for a potential reliever to pitch twice in three days, it is out of the ordinary this early in the spring.
"There are some guys I want to see more than others," said Oates. "He only threw 17 pitches the other day. And he's a guy I'm going to want to see as often as possible."
Cook has signed as a minor-league free agent in each of the past two years. He pitched in the Cardinals system in 1992, after having spent parts of three seasons (over a six-year period) with the California Angels.
He pitched 43 games, all in relief, with Triple-A Louisville, then started looking for a new place to play. His search, he said, centered on one team: the Orioles.
"I noticed last year they'd had a lot of success with minor-league free agents who got called up," said Cook. "I told my agent to call and see if they had any interest."
It didn't hurt that Cook was compiling a 4-1 record, with three saves and an 0.70 ERA, for Santurce, Puerto Rico, which won the Caribbean Series. The Orioles already had a good report on him from Fred Uhlman Sr., who scouted the winter leagues.
"They said they were interested," said Cook, "but they would only offer a minor-league contract and an invite to training camp. I knew that other guys had been successful with them that way, so I said, 'What the heck?' "
His record the past three years at Triple-A (11-4) and his 1-6 mark in three trials with the Angels hardly suggested that Cook was a prime candidate to make the Orioles staff.
"But every report I got this winter said this guy could be a sleeper," said Oates. "I couldn't wait to see him throw."
Cook has not disappointed. He attributes his turnaround to a return to his sidearm delivery.
"I have never been able to throw straight overhand," he said, "but every year with the Angels my arm got a little higher until I just lost it [sidearm style]."
Near the end of last season, Cook began working his way back to that type of delivery. "When I got there, it
felt good, and I decided to stay with it," he said.
Realizing he was running out of time to make a return to the major leagues, Cook went to Puerto Rico. He was named to the All-Winter League team by Baseball America and came to the Orioles camp with renewed hope.
Neither he nor Oates is quite sure where Cook fits into the pitching mix. Oates has said Cook could be one of numerous candidates for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, or he might be used in long relief.
Although he has spent the past year in the bullpen, Cook said he isn't worried about returning to the role of starter. "I don't have any problem with that," he said. "I've been a starter most of my career."
Though he hasn't allowed a walk in his three innings this spring, Cook isn't completely satisfied with his control. "In the intrasquad game, I got behind 2-0 a couple of times, and they [coaching staff] made me aware of it," he said.
"I got away with it, but I know you can't do that," said Cook, who has given up one hit in each of his appearances. "I've got to stay ahead of the hitters."
The more he keeps getting batters out, the more Cook is likely to pitch this spring. "He never throws the ball straight," said Oates, who added that he likes the movement he has seen on Cook's pitches so far.
Some camp observers have described Cook's pitches as resembling those of left-handers, who have the reputation for throwing pitches that sink or sail.
If it's a left-handed compliment, Cook will take it. After bouncing around the minor leagues for seven years, he would like a prolonged stay in "The Show."
And Oates appears intent on giving him every opportunity.