Lately, right-hander Rick Forney has had opposing batters in his left back pocket -- the one they no longer see when he winds up for a pitch.
"In college, I was told to show my back pocket, but now my pitching coach, Tom Brown, has told me to stop doing that," said the 19-year-old 1989 Annapolis High graduate, now hurling for the BaltimoreOrioles' Rookie League farm club in Sarasota, Fla. "He's changed my mechanics a little bit."
Brown said, "When he first came to us, he dragged his arms. His kick was real high and he wrapped his left leg around his push leg on the rubber. We kept his fastball, his curve and his forkball, but we don't even use his changeup -- it'll be there if he needs it."
So far, Forney hasn't needed it.
"He's got the best control in this league," said Brown, whose club leads the five-team Gulf Coast League with a 32-18 record.
"He's the only guy I know of who can spot a fastball -- up or down, in or out. When it's 0-2 or 1-2, his forkball is automatic. It's strike three -- every time."
Following Brown's directions has kept Forney unbeaten in six games and taken him straight to the top of the league.
"He helps me tremendously. I have a lot better command of my pitches, I'm not walking people and I'm throwing strikes," said Forney, who has a 1.62 ERA and a 40-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
He has recorded four shutouts in nine games, including 23 consecutive scoreless innings. Forney put his unbeaten record on the line Friday against the Minnesota Twins' third-place farm club in Fort Myers, a team he has beaten three times.
"I had a slower delivery than most, but now I don't feel like I'm taking velocity off of the ball when I pitch," said Forney. "You can really feel the difference in the hips."
The Orioles certainly notice the difference between Forney and the rest of its Rookie League pitchers. In fact, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder already has been invited to play in the instructional leagues from September to October.
The two-month long, six-team tryout will allow the Orioles scouting officials to compare Forney with the top rookies from organizations like the Chicago White Sox, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Texas Rangers, the Minnesota Twins and a Korean All-Star team.
It's hard to believe this guy spent mostof his time as a catcher at Annapolis High, helping the Panthers to a state title in 1988 under Coach Larry Brogden.
Then, in two years at Anne Arundel Community College, Forney made a graceful transition from part-time catcher to being a reliever and then to a full-time starting spot.
"We worked him as a catcher and a pitcher at first," said Clayton Jacobson, Anne Arundel Community College's head coach."But then, I remember the look on his face when I walked up to him and told him, 'I'm afraid you'll never hold a bat in your hand again.'
"He was a student of the game and had pretty good size and good mechanics. We thought pitching held his best opportunities for development. I'm sure he learned a lot about batters as a catcher, so he knew how to read them as a pitcher. He missed hitting a little bit, but he adjusted."
As a freshman playing behind Broadneck graduate Brian Toronto, now with the Texas Rangers, and Glen Burnie graduate Mike Hebb, now with the Orioles' Class A Kane County program, Forney compiled a modest 2-0 record and a 3.09 ERA with nine saves.
"(Closing for) Brian was a lot easier," Forney recalled. "He was a knuckleballer-curveballer and threw between 78 to 80 (miles per hour.) I could come in at 85 and the guys would strike out, looking for Brian's junk.
"I had to work a little harder with Hebb because he threw hard like me. I didn't want to just come in with the same stuff."
Forney came in with the right stuff to be a starter the next season, growing an inch, slimming down from 220 to 205 pounds and gaining some endurance from his summer-league season in his fourth year with Annapolis Post 7 of the American Legion League.
"If you looked at him as a freshman, his pitches were blowing by people at 88 for two innings," said Larry Schillenberg, the pitching coach at AACC. "But as a sophomore, he realized he had to be in tip-top shape -- and he was. He had more finesse. He could spread it across more innings and he was more consistently at 85 or 86."
Forney used his four-pitch arsenal to post a 6-3 record with two saves and a 2.63 ERA. He gave up 50 hits in five complete games and seven relief appearances, striking out 67 and walking 20 in 68 1/3 innings.
Impressive stats, but enough to takethe rookie leagues by storm?
"He had a good fastball, but that's hittable in the pros. He's probably learning to mix up pitches well and keep players off-balance," said Schillenberg. "But I'm still surprised at how easy it seems to be for him. He doesn't seem to be struggling."
A good reason for that, said Forney, is his change in attitude. In the past, Forney had a temper that would boil the mercury in any thermometer.
"I used to be a hot-head, but I've really calmed down and learned how not to allow the batter to hit the ball," said Forney.
"Before, if I'd throw two bad pitches in a row, I'd get frustrated and follow them up with four or five bad pitches. But I've had time to gain a lot more composure and poise. I can step off of the mound, take a deep breath and get back to work."