Second wind

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- It was only a few weeks after one of the most frustrating seasons in his baseball life had ended when Leo Mazzone was on the phone with his close friend, Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo.

The two had spoken so many times during the season, when a relationship that was cultivated as kids in Western Maryland was tested by the weight of high expectations and disappointing results. But the tenor of this particular conversation was different from so many of the others during the previous eight months.

Mazzone, the highly respected pitching coach who finally had most of October off after going to the playoffs for 14 straight seasons with the Atlanta Braves, told Perlozzo he was ready to get back to work. It didn't matter that the official spring training reporting date for pitchers and catchers was still several months away.

"What happened last year, as far as pitching was concerned, I felt that was unacceptable," Mazzone said from the visiting dugout at Yankee Stadium over the weekend. "The only way to get that accepted was to start working."

Mazzone clearly doesn't enjoy talking about the 2006 season, one during which the Orioles' pitching staff posted a 5.35 ERA, the second-worst in club history and the second-worst in the major leagues last year, ahead of only the lowly Kansas City Royals'.

Sure, there were bright spots, and Mazzone is quick to point them out on this day. Young left-hander Erik Bedard emerged as a potential ace. Enigmatic right-hander Daniel Cabrera showed signs by season's end that he was ready to fulfill his potential.

Former first-round pick Adam Loewen gave some glimpses that he could become one of the better young left-handers in the American League. And Chris Ray, at 24, handled the closer's role with aplomb.

It was because of the return of those guys, along with the offseason veteran additions made to bolster the back of the rotation and bullpen, that Mazzone reported to spring training feeling reinvigorated. And that feeling hasn't changed despite the Orioles' 2-4 start heading into today's home opener against the Detroit Tigers.

"I knew there had to be a change in some personnel in order for the pitching department to move forward, and there was a change in personnel. There was a change in makeup, and there was a change in personality," Mazzone said. "There were times last year where there were pitchers here that shouldn't have even been in the big leagues. The difference between the bullpen last year and the bullpen this year is like night and day."

Some say the difference in Mazzone compared with last year is just as obvious.

"There has been a big difference," said Loewen, who clashed with Mazzone last season as a 22-year-old rookie. "He's a lot more laid-back. He knows what he is going to get out of us, and he sticks with us, no matter what."

Said Perlozzo: "He's a much happier person. There weren't too many days where he wouldn't come over and say, 'Boy, this is so much better from last year.' He felt a lot more comfortable. He told me many times this spring that the camp was 10 times better than it was last year."

Dream job

It had been a longtime dream for Mazzone to serve as Perlozzo's pitching coach, and the two sides made it happen before the 2006 season. The Orioles lured him out of Atlanta, where he was the Braves' pitching coach for the previous 15 1/2 years, with a three-year deal that paid him approximately $500,000 annually, making him one of the league's highest-paid pitching coaches.

But for much of the 2006 season, Mazzone's return to the state he grew up in to sit alongside his childhood friend in the Orioles' dugout played out like a nightmare. He missed out on valuable time with his starters in spring training, because four-fifths of the starting rotation pitched in the World Baseball Classic. The rotation then faltered badly, as Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen, who combined for 28 wins the previous year, went 9-25 in 2006. The bullpen was brutal in front of Ray.

All the while, Mazzone's intense, outspoken - and, at times, cantankerous - personality alienated some Orioles. In one late May interview with The Sun, Mazzone assailed several pitchers for "a lack of passion" and a "lack of know-how."

On the day he was traded to the Colorado Rockies this offseason, Lopez said he "butted heads" with Mazzone, though he refused to blame the pitching coach for his 18-loss season.

"Some of that was misunderstood last year when I told a couple of the guys the truth, and it wasn't in a bad way," said Mazzone, who declined to address anyone specifically. "They reacted wrongly. Apparently, they thought I was too hard on them or something. If one or two of them didn't like hearing the truth, then they have to look in the mirror themselves. Some people in this game have to look in the mirror more often."

Perlozzo said he felt criticism Mazzone got last year was unfair.

"I've never known the man to do anything but try to help somebody," he said.

'The same guy'

Orioles No. 3 starter Jaret Wright, a 31-year-old veteran who had his best season in 2004 while working with Mazzone in Atlanta, laughed when asked whether he noticed a kinder and gentler pitching coach. "Who said anything about that?" he said.

"He's the same guy to me," Wright said. "He is there for you 150 percent. If he yells at you or whatever, it's because he cares. He wants you to have success really bad. ...

"I've always appreciated the fact that he is not going to sugarcoat anything. I don't need to be pampered or made to feel good about myself. I want you to tell me how I can change and get better."

Only after considerable prodding does Mazzone acknowledge that he is more mellow this season, an assertion with which several Orioles agreed. Asked whether that had anything to do with his offseason marriage, Mazzone smiled and said: "That helps considerably. But this group of pitchers has helped, too.

"We're not dealing with that other stuff that we dealt with last year," he continued. "There were a lot of times last year that I had to go tell guys to get spikes on. I mean, come on. I have mellowed out. I am around good people. When you are around good people and you feel like they are preparing right to get a job done, you are going to naturally enjoy it."

Though he still carries that woe-is-me visage while rocking away on the bench, Mazzone, at least in the clubhouse, does appear to be enjoying himself more. He frequently jokes with Cabrera, who said his pitching coach is "always happy and fun to be around."

On Saturday, Loewen, who pitched five solid innings a night earlier to beat the New York Yankees and give the Orioles their first victory of the season, approached Mazzone on the bench and began some playful ribbing.

Loewen said he was afraid to talk to Mazzone early last year.

"I was just kind of afraid of him, and I really didn't defend myself," Loewen said. "I didn't know I could voice my opinion. That's really what he tells guys now: 'I want to hear your ideas, I am not going to shoot them down.' "

Important season

The good sentiment aside, Mazzone, who has tutored six Cy Young Award winners and nine 20-game winners, must know that it is an important year for him and Perlozzo. Both are signed through the 2008 season and intrinsically linked. Mazzone, who is 58, said he'd like to retire in an Orioles uniform and he plans on doing that when he is 62.

But his prime focus is on guiding the Orioles back to prominence. It is a widely held belief in baseball that the Orioles' 2007 season hinges on the performances of Bedard, Cabrera and Loewen, and nothing that has happened during the first week of the season has disputed that.

"What I've seen so far is this pitching staff has a chance to be very good, so hopefully over a period of time, that will bear out," Mazzone said. "I see guys that are starting to mature. Last year was unacceptable. But do I feel pressure? Nope. I hope that there are always high expectations. That's what it is all about."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

HOME OPENER

PROBABLE LINEUPS

TIGERS

CF -- CURTIS GRANDERSON

2B -- PLACIDO POLANCO

DH -- GARY SHEFFIELD

RF -- MAGGLIO ORDONEZ

SS -- CARLOS GUILLEN

C -- IVAN RODRIGUEZ

1B -- SEAN CASEY

LF -- CRAIG MONROE

3B -- BRANDON INGE

P -- CHAD DURBINE

ORIOLES

2B -- BRIAN ROBERTS

3B -- MELVIN MORA

RF -- NICK MARKAKIS

SS -- MIGUEL TEJADA

1B -- AUBREY HUFF

LF -- JAY GIBBONS

DH -- KEVIN MILLAR

CF -- COREY PATTERSON

C -- PAUL BAKO

P -- DANIEL CABERA

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