Mazzone in sync with his pitchers

Familiarity helps O's, Mazzone work as one

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- At the dawn of his second year in Baltimore, Leo Mazzone is finally more of a coach than a curiosity, a teacher as opposed to an outsider trying to make his mark. Mazzone doesn't have to introduce himself or evaluate every arm he sees, largely because he's built a base of knowledge about his current staff.

Mazzone is more comfortable around his charges, and by extension, they're much more comfortable around him.

"It's been a great spring so far, a Spring Training like I've been accustomed to in the past," Mazzone said. "You come in and see some familiar faces, and the pitching staff's been very cooperative and very professional. They're going about their business in a great way. And we've had a good exchange of ideas. That's how it normally goes."

That may be how it normally goes, but last season was a major exception. Mazzone came in cold to Baltimore, fresh off 14 straight National League East Division titles with the pitching-rich Atlanta Braves. He had to start from scratch with the Orioles, and spent most of the spring indoctrinating his arms to his brand of work habits and style of pitching.

And as if all of that wasn't hard enough, he had to deal with a steady stream of defections to the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Baltimore lost more than nine pitchers -- some for as little as a week -- to the tournament, and Mazzone found himself scrambling to keep on top of every potential development.

"I think the nicest thing is being able to have them all spring," he said of the difference between last year and this one. "We get to set up their throwing programs, exchange ideas on philosophy and just get to know each other. You also have some different pitchers in this room -- pitchers with a lot of character that have been on winners before."

That talent influx is most evident in the composition of the bullpen, a need in which Baltimore spent $40 million to add four veterans to an area that Mazzone dubbed a year-long "tryout camp" last season.

The Orioles were often working with overmatched relievers who couldn't be fixed, and starters Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen helped exacerbate the situation by constantly pitching behind and leaving early in games. As the 2006 season wore on, Mazzone began to break through to the team's younger pitchers and gain some important perspective.

"August and September were OK, but June and July were rough," he said. "You could see Erik Bedard emerging as one of the top pitchers. You could see Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera making progress. You knew you had a legitimate closer in Chris Ray. August and September gave you hope for the coming year."

That hope was evident in the clubhouse, as well. Baltimore has heavily stacked its deck in favor of young pitching, and adding Mazzone was an investment in making that plan come to fruition. Slowly but surely, his pitchers have learned what he expects from them and what they can do to keep him happy.

Now, they just need to take the mound and pitch, which is more natural for everyone involved.

"His main goal last year was to get to know the guys and get to know their pluses and weaknesses," Ray said. "Coming into this year, he knows what we have to work on going into Spring Training. He can pinpoint a few more things to help each person's game instead of just helping the general game of the pitching staff."

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"It was intimidating at first. I think it would be for anybody with his track record," Loewen added. "I was just a rookie pitcher trying to make the team, and I didn't really feel comfortable in camp at the time. I had struggled the year before. I think I made the best of it, though, and now we're really good friends.

"I feel like I can go up and talk to him at any time. That makes all the difference in the world, really."

Mazzone doesn't preach anything radical, preferring to harp on pitchers working late into games and relying on their fastball to set up everything else. But there is one thing he does that flies in the face of conventional wisdom: Mazzone has his starters throw twice in between outings, while most of the league sticks to one side session.

The wizened veteran said the program is designed to keep his pitchers active and to get them used to pitching with fatigue. After all, they'll be gassed at some point in nearly all of their starts, so they may as well prepare for it. That theory takes time to digest, and more to the point, it takes time for pitchers to adjust to it.

"I would be a fool to have pitching programs that would hurt pitchers. In all these years, these programs and things I like to do with pitchers are all geared toward their health," he explained. "Arm injuries occur when pitchers don't trust that 90-100 percent effort will get the desired result, so they overexert and they overthrow.

"Before you know it, you're trying to do more than you can, and that's how you hurt yourself. The thinking behind the program is to get on the mound more often with less exertion to constantly build up for each start."

Veteran starter Jaret Wright, who arrived via an offseason trade with the Yankees, said that Mazzone made a big difference in his late-career renaissance. Wright was just rounding into shape after his second shoulder surgery when he hooked on with Mazzone in Atlanta, and the coach helped him slowly rebuild his career.

"I thought we had a good rapport in Atlanta. I'm definitely looking forward to working with him again," Wright said. "I think, at the time when I went there, he just simplified it for me. I was thinking too much about how I felt and how hard I was throwing. He took me down a level and helped me try to figure out where it was going."

Mazzone now has to plot the same course for his staff as a whole. The pitching coach shies away from making predictions, but he makes it clear that he's excited about the staff's potential to sustain its improvement.

"Number one, we have to get through Spring Training. And after that, we have to take it a start at a time," he said. "Nobody's smart enough to project how much better we can be. Different pitchers reach certain points in makeup and maturity at different times. If you've got them all hitting at the same time, you're in real good shape."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.