Arrieta continues to push his limits

Arrieta continues to push his limits

Arrieta continues to push his limits
SARASOTA, Fla. -- He had a good arm and a clean delivery, not exactly a rousing scouting report, but enough to make Texas Christian University head baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle look a little closer at the McKinney Marshalls' pitcher on the mound.

The right-hander wasn't dominant in the Texas Collegiate League contest at Highland Park High School that night, and his numbers before that summer, as a freshman at Weatherford Junior College, hardly raised an eyebrow. Jake Arrieta wasn't ready to pitch against the Division I talent at TCU, his Weatherford coaches told the inquiring Schlossnagle. It took less than 10 minutes for Arrieta to convince him otherwise.

"He has great presence," Schlossnagle said of Arrieta, who he talked with immediately after that game and signed less than two weeks later. "You could see, 'Hey, this guy has a fire in his eye and he wants to compete.' He wanted to have a chance to prove himself at the next level. You could tell he was ready to do that."

It's because Arrieta, now part of the Orioles' starting rotation, has had plenty of practice pushing his limits.

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"He had to deal with not being the best," Lou Arrieta said of his son, whose first word, coincidentally, was "ball."

"That was hard for him. He's always had that tiger mentality, always been competitive, even at an early age."

At first, it was mercilessly trying to catching up to his father's Wiffle ball tosses on the Little League field across the street; later it became hours of ping-pong in Weatherford's student center, where Arrieta would frequently tell his friend -- and far superior opponent -- to not take it easy on him.

"That's the way I approach everything. If I'm getting beat or I feel like there's ways to get better at something, I'll figure it out," Arrieta said. "No matter what it takes."

A little overweight and undersized as a high school player, Arrieta became fixated on conditioning and nutrition, an edge he figured would set him apart from other kids. That diligence finally started to pay off in his first season at TCU when Arrieta finished tied for the national lead in wins (14) and posted a 2.35 ERA in 19 games. He also averaged a strikeout per inning in his sophomore campaign, holding opponents to a .231 batting average.

But his compulsive personality -- as much as it helped fuel his success -- could also be a hindrance for Arrieta, who was always obsessed with finding the next tweak, or the new idea to make him better. If eight repetitions in the weight room was considered status quo, Arrieta had to do 12. He added so much muscle his junior season that his command suffered, forcing the TCU staff to shut him down from lifting to get his delivery back on track.

"[He's] very, very self motivated and very much a perfectionist," Schlossnagle said of Arrieta, who he also coached on Team USA's squad in 2006. "[He is] really hard on himself, and those are some good traits, and also some things he had to overcome.

"There is some of that [aggressiveness] that I think he's had to learn to temper a little bit."

Still, it's a problem most Major League managers would love to have, and Baltimore's Buck Showalter is no exception.

"I'd rather pull the reins back than get somebody to go," said Showalter, who watched Arrieta go 2-0 with a 2.60 ERA in his final three starts last season. "With Jake, it's never a question of doing more, it's a question of working smart as well as hard."

Arrieta -- who turns 25 on Sunday -- is the first to admit he is still figuring things out, although he did make significant strides during the 2010 season. Knowing that he wouldn't break camp with the Orioles last spring, he requested to be sent to the Minor League side before he was cut so he could get more innings and prepare to start the season at Triple-A Norfolk. He got off to a torrid start with the Tides, going 6-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 12 outings (11 starts), before the big league club came knocking.

"It started to click [in Norfolk]," Arrieta said. "For the first time, it really felt like I was becoming a pitcher. A complete pitcher. And not just a guy who would go out there and try to throw everything hard.

"Over the years, in junior college, at TCU, in the Minor Leagues, you learn all these things. Frank Robinson the other day said that he learned something new every day about the game. And for a guy like that to say those type of things, that puts it in perspective for me. I still have a great deal to learn."

Coming off a rookie campaign in which he went 6-6 with a 4.66 ERA in 18 starts, Arrieta is confident he can build on that success this season. Shortening his stride in the final two months last year helped him iron out some control issues, while having some Major League experience under his belt should help him when facing tough American League East squads like the Yankees and Red Sox, particularly in hostile environments.

"Once I got to the big leagues, it was a pretty rude awakening," said Arrieta, who allowed one run on two hits and two walks in two innings against the Tigers on Friday. "Knowing that there's constant adjustments that need to be made on the fly. But I feel like with my work ethic, how I was raised, overcoming those obstacles won't be a problem."

Schlossnagle is equally confident that Arrieta will continue to push his ceiling and establish himself, not only in the Orioles' rotation, but around the Major Leagues.

"All the great ones are the same," said Schlossnagle, who likens Arrieta to another pitcher on that '06 Team USA squad, Tampa Bay Rays lefty David Price.

"Obviously [they are two] totally different personalities. But I always compared their work ethic and how their makeup exceeds their ability level. And when you have somebody with great ability like those two and all the intangibles, then you have a chance to have a special player."

"[Arrieta] will be as good as he's capable of being," added Showalter. "You are always walking a fine line between having a level of respect for the level you are playing at ... and not coming across as intimidated, but at the same time not being overly cocky about it. Jake's done a good job with that."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.