Rick Forney once had a temper that could boil the mercury in any thermometer, but every mile per hour he adds to his fastball seems conversely to cool his attitude.
It was 10:30 a.m. in St. Charles, Ill., Wednesday, when an exhausted Forney was rousted from a deep slumber by a reporter's phone call. But like the veteran he is swiftly becoming, Forney fielded questions as calmly as he might a full-count, bases-loaded, two-out squeeze bunt.
"I'm in a lot better shape than I've ever been in," said the 6-foot-4, 204-pounder. "I'm not as heavy, I'm stronger and I'm throwing a lot harder."
But as the top hurler for the Baltimore Orioles' Class A Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, the 1989 Annapolis High graduate, 20, had an aching elbow from some 99 innings and 13 games of pitching -- tops in the Northern Division.
Barely 24 hours earlier, the right-hander had stood in the dugout during the Midwest League All-Star game, advised by pitching coach Larry McCall to not play, to save himself for the second half of the season. He took his coach's advice.
Besides refining his four pitches -- an 86-mph fastball, a curve, a forkball and a change-up -- all Forney seems to be thinking about lately are "ulnar deviation" exercises he learned over the winter from Orioles strength coach Allan Johnson.
The exercises are designed to maintain his shoulders, biceps and forearms over the Cougars' 138-game schedule.
"There've just been so many innings," said Forney. "But I just keep throwing strikes, working fast and trying to stay ahead of the batters."
It's the type of lifestyle Forney's getting accustomed to as a rising star in the Orioles organization -- even if it isn't reflected in the 3-5 record he carried into his last start Saturday night against Kansas City's Atholton, the division's defending champion.
"He's lost 1-0 twice and 2-1 once. He's been our hard-luck pitcher all year long," said McCall, whose club was 30-39 and finished sixth among seven teams in the season's first half.
"The biggest thing is his control. He can work both sides of the plate with his pitches, but he's been going against the other team's best pitcher every time," McCall said. "He's solid mentally and he's constantly improving. He's been giving us seven innings just about every time out. Hopefully things will turn around for him in the second half."
In a recent 3-2 loss to the Peoria Chiefs, Forney fanned six batters with no walks. Despite yielding 11 hits, he gave up just two earned runs.
"Sometimes your team doesn't get the runs you need, but you can't go out there worried about your win-loss record," said Forney, who boasts a 2.24 ERA with 85 strikeouts and just 16 walks.
"I'm just going out there to do my job, settling into a style and getting some consistency on my pitches."
With all that he has accomplished pitching, it is difficult to fathom that Forney spent most of his time as a catcher at Annapolis High, helping the Panthers to a state title in 1988 under Larry Brogden.
Forney played for Anne Arundel Community College the next two years, going from part-time catcher to reliever to full-time starter.
AACC assistant coach Larry Schillenberg said Forney, as a freshman, "was blowing his pitches by people at about 88 mph for two innings" before learning to spread them across the distance more consistently at 85 or 86.
Forney could throw so hard, in fact, that former AACC catcher Rick Stang once remarked, "he caught me in the chest with a fastball, it knocked the wind out of me and I thought I was dead."
AACC head coach Clayton Jacobson thought pitching held Forney's best opportunities for development, telling him he'd "never hold a bat" in his hand again.
Forney compiled a freshman record of 2-0 with nine saves and a 3.09 ERA. As a sophomore, Forney was 6-3 (five complete games) with a 2.63 ERA, 67 strikeouts and 20 walks in 68 1/3 innings.
Forney hit the ground running during his first year with the Orioles' rookie farm club in Sarasota, Fla., where then coach Tom Brown said "he had the best control in the league."
Forney compiled a 7-0 record and a 2.19 ERA over 65.2 innings, with 51 strikeouts and just 10 walks to lead his team to a runner-up finish in the five-team Gulf Coast League.
"He's the only guy I know of who can spot a fastball -- up or down, in or out," Brown said. "When it's 0-2 or 1-2, his forkball is automatic. It's strike three every time."
Forney hurled perhaps his finest game in the championship semifinal against the Expos, striking out 10 against just one walk in a victory that evened the best-of-three series at one game each.
The Orioles dropped the series, 2-1, but Forney later was chosen to the Gulf Coast League All-Star team.
"I think Rick's going to move up very quickly in this organization. A good second half, I think, would make him a double-A caliber pitcher," McCall said. "I think he's got a great future with the Baltimore Orioles, but you don't want to rush a young guy like him."