Mazzone, better staff give O's shot in arm

The Baltimore Sun

Sure, hot hitting by Miguel Tejada and Nick Markakis has played a big role in the Orioles' fast start. So, apparently, has clubhouse camaraderie, although winning always casts that in a better light.

But there's no mistaking the key ingredient: better pitching, better pitching, better pitching.

Did I mention better pitching?

After last night's game at Camden Yards, the Orioles' average per-game run production of 4.84 is in the neighborhood of last season's 4.74 average, but the pitching staff's collective ERA of 3.96 is considerably better than last season's 5.35 team ERA.

The revamped bullpen has been spectacular, and the starters, though not as dominating, have kept the team close when they don't have their best stuff.

What happened to a staff that was so vulnerable? Is pitching coach Leo Mazzone's gospel finally sinking in? Or does the team just have better pitchers.

"It's both," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said yesterday. "There's no question you're seeing Leo's effect. And there's no question we have better pitchers."

The staff should be improved after the front office spent $42.4 million on relievers and $6.1 million on veteran starters. Higher payroll doesn't always translate into better pitching, but in this case, it certainly means the Orioles are using more established major leaguers.

"We had some guys last year who were not big league pitchers," Mazzone said yesterday. "They just weren't good enough."

True enough. Of the 472 appearances made by Orioles relievers last season, more than 54 percent were by pitchers who aren't in the majors today, including Todd Williams (62 appearances in 2006), Sendy Rleal (42), Kurt Birkins (35), Bruce Chen (28 in relief) and Julio Manon (22). Twenty starts were also made by guys not in the majors now. (Not counting Kris Benson or Rodrigo Lopez, who are on the disabled list.)

You get the picture. After relying on far too many borderline major leaguers last season, the Orioles have solid veterans to complement still-developing home-growns such as Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen.

"We don't expect them all to pitch lights out all season," Perlozzo said, "but at the same time, you don't get that lump in your stomach in the first inning anymore. You have some help out there [in the bullpen]."

Quantifying Mazzone's impact in his second season isn't as simple. He became known as a guru during his long run as the Atlanta Braves' pitching coach and was hired with fanfare by the Orioles, but his presence didn't translate into better pitching last season.

A year later, though, it clearly is paying dividends. Erik Bedard has become an ace, despite last night's disappointing outing. Cabrera, whose wildness was threatening to short-circuit his career, is finding the plate much more consistently. Loewen is still a work in progress, as evidenced by his seven-walk outing Saturday night, but he seldom throws the Orioles out of games.

"You're seeing Leo's effect now," Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said yesterday.

A year ago, Mazzone's arrival coincided with the inaugural World Baseball Classic, which took many pitchers away from camp for as long as a month. Combine that with the staff's youth and inexperience and you had what Palmer called "a worst-case scenario."

Perlozzo agreed: "Leo was teaching in-game at points last year because he didn't have enough time with guys in the spring. And the Braves didn't get to where they are overnight. It was an evolutionary situation that took years of Leo's influence in combination with some good pitchers. That's what we're looking at doing here."

Last year, some of the young pitchers were intimidated by Mazzone, who can be gruff; this year, they're more accustomed to him and he probably has softened a tad.

"They trust him," Perlozzo said.

How can you spot Mazzone's impact? His two commandments for every pitcher are have command of your fastball and change speeds from pitch to pitch.

"He keeps it simple," Perlozzo said. "If you can control your fastball, then you can hit that low-and-away spot when you need it and get out of jams."

Changing speeds is equally important. Mazzone pointed out that Loewen left with the lead last Saturday night despite walking seven because he kept the Blue Jays off balance.

"Some young pitchers would have just tried to power their way through that adversity, but he kept changing speeds and had them guessing," Mazzone said. "I thought it was great to see a youngster do that."

He can't hide his enthusiasm as the early season unfolds so positively.

"We have a group of great pitchers who are also good character people," Mazzone said. "They're dedicated baseball guys, not off in a corner talking on a cell phone 10 minutes before the game starts.

"It will be interesting to see where we are in September. I'm excited. I feel like it's years ago."

In Atlanta, he meant, back when things started coming together.

Yes, that's what the man said.

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