Pennington producing powerful job pitch

March 03, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Every major-league training camp has its own phenom, and the Orioles are never an exception.

Usually there's a hard thrower with raw talent and physical stature who overwhelms everybody and makes imaginations run wild.

Years ago the Orioles had Steve Dalkowski, a wild left-hander whose reputation has endured five decades. He never made it to the big leagues -- but tales of his minor-league misadventures did, and are still being related. He was wild on and off the field and never did harness his ability or emotions.

Brad Pennington is not a Steve Dalkowski, in uniform or out. But write down his name for the future -- two or three years, not two or three months. He is a 6-foot-5-inch, 205-pound left-handed pitcher who has all the physical attributes to pitch in the big leagues, even though his numbers don't support that contention.

After struggling for three years in Class A, compiling strikeouts and walks at almost an equal ratio, Pennington soon may make a rapid move through the Orioles minor-league system. His arm and emotions are nearly under control. When they are, he'll be ready to pitch at any level.

Some questioned the team's adding Pennington to the 40-man roster last winter. His minor-league statistics (7-22, with a 5.39 earned run average) hardly supported the decision. But he also had recorded 324 strikeouts and 264 walks in only 237 innings.

Watching Pennington throw batting practice for 15 minutes is enough testimony to his ability. Actually, batting practice is a misnomer. Survival drill is a better description.

"Two years ago I couldn't even throw batting practice," admitted Pennington. "I hated it."

So did the hitters, and they still do. Pennington has overmatched everybody in his two outings thus far. Sometimes it doesn't look like he can keep the ball in the cage -- but his arm control has improved along with his self-control.

"He's made a lot of progress, especially in controlling his emotions," said Doug Melvin, the Orioles assistant general manager who oversees the minor-leagues. "Before, he put too much pressure on himself and it caused him a lot of problems -- with himself and his teammates."

Two years ago, Melvin had to tell Pennington to pack his bags and leave camp. "I told him to come back when he was ready to play ball," said Melvin.

Now, you would never know that Pennington had a problem with his temper. He credits Lem Burnham, who directs the Orioles Employee Assistance Program, with helping him in that area. "He worked with me and gave me some books to read," said Pennington, "and he has really helped me.

"I'm a very nervous person -- more nervous than a pitcher should be," Pennington said with a smile that indicated he was getting everything under control. "The first day I threw here [in the major-league camp], I was so pumped up I thought I might hyperventilate on the mound."

That's something that has happened before. "I'm starting to feel more comfortable around the players now," said Pennington, who admitted he came in with an awe-struck feeling.

Having a locker next to Mike Flanagan has been helpful, also. "He doesn't force himself on you, but you can learn an awful lot just by listening to him," said Pennington.

Pennington, who will be 23 in April, is a rarity among young pitchers. He was a starting pitcher who asked to be used in relief. "Just about every reliever I know wants to be a starter, so I'm something of a freak there, I guess," he said. "But it took me two years to get them to use me in the bullpen.

"Of course, with my history of wildness, I can understand why they wouldn't want to bring me into games with runners on base." He has averaged 12 strikeouts and 10 walks per nine innings in his three professional seasons.

"It took awhile, but last year he started to show some progress," said Wally Moon, Pennington's manager at Frederick. "We had been waiting for him to show improvement, now you just hope he continues to progress."

Pennington sufficiently impressed Moon last summer that the Orioles chose to protect him at the major-league level.

Pennington did not allow an earned run over nine straight appearances July 10- 30, then registered five saves in his last six appearances. Despite playing at Kane County the first half of the year, Pennington was fifth in the Carolina League with 13 saves.

"We couldn't take the chance that some team might gamble on him," said Melvin.

Pennington figures to open with Class AA Hagerstown this season, but many agree he has the ability to knock down classification barriers.

"I know there's no way I could be here [with the Orioles] unless something awful strange happened," said Pennington. "I'm just hoping I can get in an least one game and do good, so they'll know what I can do."

Pennington will get his wish. Pitching coach Dick Bosman has him penciled in to pitch in one of the first two exhibition games, and he likely will make a few appearances before being sent out to refine his skills.

Some observers have compared Pennington to Mitch Williams, the Phillies' relief ace who surfaced in the big leagues after compiling a history of wildness throughout the minor leagues. "I think he's got a better makeup than Williams," said minor-league pitching coach Steve Luebber, "and his mechanics are better."

Nevertheless, Pennington still has a few chapters to write before he completes his minor-league education. He may even have to start the season at Frederick, but the consensus is that when he starts to move, he won't stop until he reaches Baltimore.

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