Orioles young pitchers have historic chance

Orioles young pitchers have historic chance

Orioles young pitchers have historic chance
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Prior to the Orioles' game on March 14, pitching coach Mark Connor and bullpen coach Rick Adair ushered Baltimore's five young starters into a conference room and shut the door, starting a meeting that would last for an hour-and-a-half.

It was in that room that the group -- consisting of Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen and Zach Britton -- opened up about their lives as pitchers, as people, and as a unit. The multi-faceted discussion, which involved steady dialogue between the players as well as Adair and Connor, touched on the progressions and pitfalls involved in being a Major League pitcher, and the rare opportunity that the young pitchers assembled have in front of them.

"They talked about how there's an opportunity to have a pretty good thing as a group, for us to work with each other and push each other hard," said the 24-year-old Matusz, who, like the other four pitchers, raved about the meeting's effect.

"It could be a really fun thing. You look at groups of pitchers all the time, the Braves' [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine, [John] Smoltz, [Kevin] Millwood and you look at what the Phillies have, [Cliff] Lee, [Roy] Halladay, that type of thing. There's nothing wrong with us young guys wanting to strive to be like that. To be a young core group, to build something together."

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The meeting "built a lot of confidence in all of us," added Tillman, who has split the past two seasons between Triple-A and the Majors. The 22-year-old, who is the youngest of the group, was so amped up afterward that Tillman told the coaches he wanted to throw a bullpen right then and there.

Connor "gave us examples of some of the guys he worked with, and how they started out," said Tillman, who went 2-5 with a 5.87 ERA in 11 starts for Baltimore last season. "Halladay had to go back down to some type of rookie ball. He made it all the way back [to the Majors] and now he's Roy Halladay. When you really look at the gist of that story, the whole meeting was really cool.

"[Connor] said we have a chance to be part of a dynasty, each and every one of us, if we work hard enough."

While the Orioles headlines this spring have been dominated by the health of second baseman Brian Roberts and first baseman Derrek Lee, there is no question that the 2011 season -- and the state of the entire organization going forward -- hinges on how this group of young starters progress. Monday's meeting touched on everything from the pitchers' families to Connor's star ex-pupils and the psychology behind avoiding words like "can't."

"These guys, most of them have had their feet wet, except for Zach," Connor said of the five pitchers, who are all 25 and under. "They know what it's like to walk out on the mound in front of 50,000 people on national TV. They are kind of over that part of it. Now, it's time to become a winning pitcher. Not just a guy that pitched for a team that finished 30 games out of first place. There's a difference."

The O's starting staff -- much like the rest of the team -- turned around when Showalter took over and led the last-place club to a 34-23 finish, as the young pitchers began to feed off each other with each passing start. But when Connor asked the group if they felt it was better to pitch well at the beginning or end of the season, he was met with some hesitation.

"Then we realized he was talking to us about being really consistent," said Britton, the organization's top pitching prospect who figures to make his debut in Baltimore at some point this season. "It's about getting better each time out. It's about having a good plan and really being confident that we are better than the Yankees, better than the Red Sox, and Toronto and Tampa. It was [saying], 'Hey, you guys are good.'

"It was a second-coming of [manager Buck Showalter's motivational team] video, but just us as pitchers."

Connor and Adair -- part of Showalter's wholly revamped coaching staff -- watched video of each Orioles starter this winter and were careful early on in camp to keep some distance. They didn't want to be the new coaches that came in dictating and enforcing their style, they wanted the pitchers to want to get better. So they waited, and one by one each young starter approached them.

"There's ability here," said Connor, who has worked with Halladay, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, a trio he used as examples in Monday's meeting. "I think there's more inside some of the guys than we've seen so far."

That's good news, especially when considering the underwhelming results by the starters this spring. Only Britton, who hasn't allowed a run in nine Major League spring innings, has been consistently impressive, although every young starter has attested to using camp to work with the coaches on making adjustments that will pay off in the long run. Still, with a dropoff in the Minor League system after Britton, and the continued health concerns of right-hander Justin Duchscherer -- who was signed mostly to help buy the team time in the rotation -- there is virtually no safety net should the young starters stumble out of the gate.

Perhaps that's why the meeting's message -- as motivational and complimentary as it was -- went over so well. It was, as Bergesen put it, not "sugar-coated in any way."

"So many people think that once you get here it's just a cake walk, like you've made it," said Bergesen, who was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk twice last season. "I think it's a very small percentage [who never get sent down to the Minors].

"Really what [Connor] was talking to us about is look at some of these guys, these All-Stars, these greatest guys to ever play the game. Look at what they had to deal with. It's not a matter of if you deal with adversity, it's a matter of when you deal with it."

All the guys in that room, obviously Britton hasn't been in the big leagues yet, but we've all dealt with the success, we've all dealt with the failure. It's about getting that mental edge, and being able to deal with both, and staying with that even keel the whole time."

And sticking together doing it. Several of the starters used words like "bonding" and "family" to describe Monday's meeting and it's no coincidence that Connor wanted to bring in all five pitchers together instead of talking with them separately. If the Orioles are going to turn around an organization that has posted 13 consecutive losing seasons, they are going to need all five starters to gel into one cohesive, consistent unit, one that continually pushes each other to improve.

"When Jim Palmer, [Dave] McNally, [Mike] Cuellar, when those guys were in the big leagues pitching well [for the Orioles], what happened to those guys in Triple-A?" said Britton. "No one came up. So it gives you time to build a better farm system because you aren't having to rush guys to the big leagues. That's what [Connor] feels like we can do."

"We have the ability to pitch together for a long time and at a high level," added Arrieta. "Having guys like Connor and Adair saying those kinds of things to us, it means a lot. We just have to believe in ourselves now, know what we're capable of. You can say it as much as you want, but you got to go out there and do it."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.