For starters, 14-year-old pitcher already called 'devastating' 'The sky's the limit'for N. County soph

July 24, 1992|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,Staff Writer

The fastball isn't just fast; it can run in or tail away from a hitter. The curveball has been described by some coaches as "back-breaking" for the poor soul trying to make contact.

And now, the owner of these two pitches is toying with a changeup and contemplating the merits of adding a slider.

Come next spring, Mike Wooden should be in for quite a memorable sophomore season at North County High School.

A sophomore? It boggles the mind that someone this young -- he turns 15 in September -- should possess so much talent and VTC potential for greatness on the mound. But the proof came in a decent freshman campaign on the varsity and a dazzling summer throwing for the Kazmarek Little Orioles 14-and-under team.

Wooden has gone 12-1 with five saves and a 1.20 earned-run average for the Little Orioles, who qualified for the Continental Amateur Baseball Association 14-and-under World Series Aug. 6-17 in Dublin, Ohio. They've already won the State American Amateur Baseball Congress Sandy Koufax title, leading to their departure this morning for the North Atlantic Regional in New Jersey.

And in both tournaments, the poised right-hander will be throwing from 54 feet, compared to the high school and summer league distance of 60-6. His 80 mph fastball just got faster.

"Throwing at that distance, the fastball rises and the hitters generally will swing at the high pitch, which makes it easier on me," Wooden said. "The curveball will hang, though. It takes a lot to get readjusted to the 6-foot difference."

He didn't have much difficulty in two tournaments last week, both won, of course, by the Little Orioles (64-2). He was victorious in all four games of the Linthicum-Ferndale Tournament, pitching seven innings of relief in the final, a 9-3 triumph over Sykesville. In that game, he allowed just one hit and two walks while striking out 16.

Wooden notched a win and a save in three games of the AABC state championships in Harford County. In the final, a tense 2-1 victory over the Dayton Raiders of Howard County, he spun a four-hitter with 17 strikeouts, including the last out with runners on second and third.

MA You want to talk about hitting? He homered twice in a 9-0 win

over Dayton and is batting .547 with 21 doubles, five triples, 11 homers and 70 runs batted in.

"He's the best 14-year-old player I've ever seen," said assistant coach Keith Thompson, who watched the right-hander toss a scoreless inning in an intersquad game Wednesday afternoon in Brooklyn. "He's also a great kid;very respectful, which, to me, is much more important at this age than being a good ballplayer."

"None of this is going to his head. You don't get the impression that he's the best player on the field. You can see it when you watch him play, but he doesn't have that cockiness that you get with a lot of kids.

"If he stays healthy, he's got a lot of potential. By the time he's a junior in high school, he could be devastating."

Or, as assistant coach Mike Ziegler said, "By the time he's 18, he may be the best player in the state of Maryland. The sky's the limit."

Fortunately for Wooden, there doesn't seem to be a limit to how much pressure he can withstand. He's heard plenty about being a pro prospect and how he impressed scouts at a Baltimore Orioles tryout camp at Camden Yards with his mature physique (6 feet, 155 pounds) and skills.

"I guess it puts a little more pressure on you, to go out and do more things and rise up to the expectations," he said. "But playing here, it really levels your head out, and I try not to think about it. I just want to win ballgames and not worry about #F impressing the scouts. I just try to block all that out."

Just as he ignored the close scrutiny that came with making the North County varsity at an age when most ballplayers are trying to get noticed on the junior varsity. He pitched much better than his 1-4 record would indicate, often faltering in the later innings or winding up with a no-decision when a reliever gave up the lead.

He also found that it was more difficult to get by on physical ability alone. The art of pitching, he discovered, extends past the arm and into the head.

"In high school, it was more pitching with my mind, working each hitter," he said "There's a lot of change. It took two or three games before I thought I was feeling more comfortable with it. Now, I think more about pitching, instead of just going out there throwing to the batters."

And he's giving his catchers on the Little Orioles something more to contemplate -- if there's time to do so.

"With his velocity, you've got to be able to handle it," said Shane Thompson, 13, who caught most of Wooden's games last year. "You can't just throw somebody back there and expect him to catch a 70-some mile-an-hour fastball. And with the shorter distance, you don't have as long to think about the pitch."

Luis Falcon, 14, who has done most of the catching this summer, said, "If you need him to win a big game, he'll do it. He can throw any pitch at any time and get a strike. Even in tough situations, he always seems to get out of it, either with the fastball or the curve."

And like at North County, he's faced opponents who are older, but not necessarily more advanced. The Little Orioles played, and won, 29 games in the Joe E. Brown 16-and-under League this summer.

"He's years ahead of where he should be," Coach Thompson said.

"This is his time to shine, to show everyone how good of a player he is," Ziegler said. "If he continues like this, there's no saying how good he could be."

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