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Pitcher Zach Stewart hoping two-year stay in KBO pays off with Orioles

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Zach Stewart spent two seasons in South Korea hoping to get another MLB shot. The Orioles might give him just

Without trivializing a move halfway around the world with a wife and two children, Orioles reliever Zach Stewart doesn't make his two-season sojourn to South Korea to revitalize his career sound like too much of a hardship.

There was a nice team-provided apartment, Mondays off for sightseeing and plenty of trips to the beloved Kids Cafes, where his daughters were obsessed with the massive indoor playscapes.

The hard part, the one that will decide whether those years abroad were worth it, is the one he's grinding through now.

Stewart, a nonroster invitee in Orioles camp this year, has been one of the quiet successes of spring training and is trying to crack a major league roster for the first time since 2012.

"It's one of those deals where I'm going on a lot of road trips, but I'm happy for it," Stewart said. "Just get me out there and let me show you what I can do. Hopefully, it works out for the best and can help the team. That's kind of where I'm at."

South Korea was a detour on a career path that saw Stewart scratch at big league success, though never maintain it. His first professional baseball experience came in Sarasota when the Cincinnati Reds, the team that drafted him in 2008, held a minicamp at the facility that now belongs to the Orioles.

Soon after, he was stuck in a trade spiral. Teams always find it easier to trade a player they didn't draft — the fewer of their scouts and executives to upset, the better — so when he was paired with Edwin Encarnacion in a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009, the cycle began.

He went to the Chicago White Sox for Edwin Jackson. He went to the Boston Red Sox for Kevin Youkilis. At each stop, he pitched in the majors, most recently in 2012 with the Red Sox, but the results weren't there. His career big league ERA has been stuck at 6.82 ever since, with time back in the White Sox organization and stints with the Braves and Angels in the minors not yielding another shot.

So midway through the 2015 season, he made a change. The Angels released him and he signed with NC Dinos in the Korean Baseball Organization.

"It was one of those things where you don't start off your career thinking, 'I'm going to go play in Korea or Japan,' or whatever, but it was at that point where I felt like I was still doing well and didn't get the big league looks that I thought I would," Stewart said. "I thought I was still pitching well enough to get it, and I wasn't, just wasn't getting the looks.

"My agent came up with this opportunity and said, 'The money's good,' and you kind of get to a point with kids where I've got to do what I needed to do. But overall, it ended up being a good thing. I ended up going back for another year and enjoyed our time over there."

His first year in South Korea was difficult with two young children — Marley and Layla. His youngest daughter was around six months old when he moved. But Stewart said his wife, Diana, knows the itinerant lifestyle from her time as a professional tennis player who lived in her family's native Romania and understood. The second season was easier, with Marley old enough to help and the youngest no longer a baby, and Stewart thought a third season might be in order. But instead the Orioles came calling.

After two years in the KBO with a 19-9 record and 3.76 ERA, along with almost identical rate stats to those he posted over a lengthy minor league career, Stewart returned to Sarasota for an opportunity he said stood out above others.

"They're a team that just uses everybody," Stewart said. "I've been with organizations where at certain points, they were only going to call up prospects or whatever. This organization just wants to win. It doesn't matter who you are — if you're just some bum off the streets, I guess — as long as you can help the team. We saw that, and thought for me, and where I had been in the past, that this was a good opportunity."

His path so far isn't a knock against him. Manager Buck Showalter challenges the notion of him being a journeyman.

"His services have been wanted," Showalter said. "He's a guy that loves to pitch. I was just watching the pitchers play pepper back there. He's pretty athletic. He's one of those guys, when we talk about him, he just keeps showing up. A reliable, dependable guy. You know what you're going to get."

Stewart began the spring as one of the Orioles' most effective relievers before Wednesday's game in Bradenton against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Over his first four appearances spanning 7 1/3 innings, Stewart hadn't allowed a run while giving up just two hits, three walks and striking out four. On Wednesday, he was charged with three runs and had two inherited runs score on his watch, with a grand slam by outfielder Phil Gosselin spoiling what had been a good run.

His starting background gives him the ability to pitch multiple innings for the Orioles in relief if they so choose. And while it's a crowded field that includes the likes of Logan Verrett, Vidal Nuno, Richard Bleier and Gabriel Ynoa, Showalter said Stewart has set himself up well in the competition to be the team's long reliever.

"We've got five or six of them, but we like our possibilities," Showalter said. "He's a veteran guy. You've got to really like baseball to do some of the things he has done. He was compensated for it, not doing it for free, but I have a lot of respect for his stick-to-it-ness."

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