SARASOTA, Fla. -- The first evidence is the hole in the mound, the hole Brad Pennington is digging with his front foot. The hole gets deeper when Pennington lands the way manager Phil Regan taught him. The hole gets deeper, and the effect on Pennington is just the opposite.
Pennington is climbing out, and Arthur Rhodes and Sid Fernandez are right beside him. Soon, Kevin Brown will emerge from his own ditch. Who knows? Regan and pitching coach Mike Flanagan might even help excavate Jesse Orosco.
Welcome to Phil and Mike's Quarry, a haven for pitch- ers of all ages, and nothing short of heaven for Pennington and Rhodes, the Lost Lefties who were buried last season by former manager Johnny Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman.
"I anticipate it being a much better thing, and so far it has," Pennington said yesterday. "I'm not trying to undercut Johnny and Bos. But I spoke more with Regan when I was stretching the other day than all the other times with Johnny put together -- excluding the time I got sent down [in '93]."
Rhodes was more succinct, and less diplomatic.
"I never thought they were on my side," he said.
Now here's Regan, a manager who sees young players for all their possibilities, not as candidates to get him fired. If anything, he might lean too far the other way -- witness his bold attempt to promote Curtis Goodwin from Double-A to be the Orioles' leadoff hitter and center fielder.
Whatever, the change is refreshing. Oates blew a memorable game to Seattle last season trying to get Pennington demoted. Regan took the opposite approach yesterday, standing behind a batting cage and shouting, "Attaboy!" each time Pennington threw with the proper mechanics.
Regan is not only experienced -- he was a major-league pitcher, winter-league manager and a major-league scout -- he's the anti-Johnny in temperament, relaxed, confident, secure.
The difference is stunning.
The difference will make the Orioles a better club.
Granted, they're automatically better with the additions of three free-agent pitchers, but the most important additions will be Regan and Flanagan. Indeed, the Orioles' starting rotation might be the best in the league, simply because of the impact Regan and Flanagan will make on Brown, Fernandez and Rhodes.
Rhodes, in particular, can't wait. He averaged 4 1/3 innings in his first eight starts last season, spent a month at Triple-A Rochester, then returned to throw back-to-back shutouts. He's convinced that Oates and Bosman lost faith in him.
"Oh yeah, for sure," Rhodes said yesterday. "They knew I wouldn't go more than four or five innings every time I pitched. That's what they had in their minds. They didn't have any confidence in me."
Rhodes said he never voiced his concern, but was "frustrated inside." Basically, he was waiting for Oates and Bosman to get fired.
"I didn't say nothing to them," he said. "I knew they'd be leaving soon anyway."
What about his turnaround?
"[Steve] Luebber helped a little. Tom Brown helped a little," Rhodes said, referring to two minor-league pitching instructors who have since left the organization for the Texas Rangers. "Bos really didn't do nothing.
"I came to Baltimore and threw two good games. It was like Bos did this, Bos did that. But he always thought I was a sinker-ball pitcher. I'm not a sinker-ball pitcher. I throw a fastball-slider-change."
Rhodes said the change in staffs was "a big relief to me. Now I know they've got the confidence I can go seven-eight innings. Once Johnny and Bos left, I said, 'Hey, I'll go out like I did the last two games in Baltimore, and pick it up from there.' "
So, is this the year?
"It will be," Rhodes said.
Of course, we've heard this kind of spring talk from Rhodes before -- in '92, '93 and '94. It's time now for him to take responsibility for his career. Regan and Flanagan can offer support, but if Rhodes fails this season, he will have no one to blame but himself.
"Maybe in the long run the best thing for him was to go back down [last season]," Flanagan said. "The reality of that sets in. I find him very coachable, very receptive, very much willing to learn. I can't say for sure that's the way he's always been, but that's the way he is now."
The irony is, Oates was a players' manager at the start, before he grew distant and paranoid, especially under owner Peter Angelos. It's possible Regan will regress the same way once he's exposed to the intense daily pressure of managing. Virtually every man changes. The pressure is like none other.
But for now, Regan appears the perfect fit. He's a first-year manager at 58, and the way he carries himself, it seems as if he has spent his entire life preparing for this job.
Indeed, Fernandez still can't believe that Regan called him twice this winter in Hawaii.
"I didn't expect it," Fernandez said. "As long as I've been playing ball, I never got calls from anybody. It was kind of neat."
Regan isn't the reason Fernandez lost 37 pounds, but at some point, "El Thin" will need positive reinforcement, and Regan and Flanagan will be there to provide it. It's already happening with Pennington. Three days into camp, he's making dramatic progress.
The first day Pennington threw, Regan stopped him after three pitches. At first, Ben McDonald thought Pennington was injured. But no, Regan had just noticed Pennington was landing on his heel, creating a chain reaction that caused him to drag his arm.
Such are the benefits of having a former pitcher as manager. Regan suggested that Pennington plant his foot firmly so that he could throw over the top. Pennington didn't throw a strike the rest of the day, but Regan told him not to worry, if the adjustment didn't work, they'd try something else.
Yesterday, Pennington showed marked improvement, and Regan couldn't hide his excitement.
"Some pitchers never get it, never learn it," Regan said. "He picked it up real quick."
"I couldn't believe it," Pennington said. "And he couldn't believe it, either."
At one point, Regan told Pennington to go back to his own way of throwing. Pennington refused, saying it no longer felt comfortable.
It made Regan's day.
"I told him you shouldn't only pitch in the big leagues, you should be a star in the big leagues," Regan said. "With your stuff, you ought to be outstanding."
Pennington probably couldn't believe his ears.
Oates and Bosman are gone.
It's safe to climb out.