Pennington takes walk off wild side


February 20, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Three years later, Brad Pennington recalls every detail. It was the night Georgia Tech played Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. He was relaxing with a teammate in his motel room as midnight approached.

Just then, his spring training roommate walked in the door. They got into an argument, then a fistfight. The next morning, when Pennington arrived at minor-league camp, he discovered that "all the stuff was out of my locker."

He was summoned to a meeting with Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, assistant GM Doug Melvin, "everyone who has any power."

He was sent home.

"I probably grew up a lot right then," said Pennington, who returned to Salem, Ind., and rejoined his minor-league club at the start of the season. "The biggest thing I've learned is that if people like you, you've got a lot better chance than if people don't."

People like Pennington now, club officials in particular. A left-handed reliever with a 95-mph fastball, he overpowered hitters at three levels last season. Yesterday, Melvin told him he could break in under Gregg Olson the same way Scott Radinsky did under Bobby Thigpen with the Chicago White Sox in 1990.

Pennington, 23, remains excitable, but the difference is, he's under control. Last season, he gave up a game-winning homer to end a 10-game winning streak at Rochester in the first game of a doubleheader. He returned in the second game, and struck out five of six hitters.

It was quite an improvement from the time Melvin saw him at Bluefield in 1989, when Pennington was 19 and in his first pro season. "He fielded a grounder, threw it away and pounded his fist into the ground," Melvin said. "I thought he was going to break his hand."

Fortunately, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Pennington has learned to channel his emotions.

Otherwise, someone might get hurt.

"The hitters have to be real uncomfortable," Triple-A pitching coach Steve Luebber said. "You see a lot of motion, a lot of arms and legs. He's a big man. He generates a lot of arm speed."

But in his first three minor-league seasons, Pennington reminded old-timers of the legendary Steve Dalkowski, averaging 12 strikeouts and 10 walks per nine innings. Finally, he seems to know where the ball is going.

Last season, he maintained his strikeout rate while cutting his walks to 6.4 per nine innings and holding opponents to a .152 batting average, lowest in the organization. In the Arizona Fall League, he averaged only 4.5 walks per nine innings. Now comes the true test, the crucible of spring training.

It seems the spring is always a revelatory time for Pennington. Last year, he was sitting in his room one night when Luebber called and said, "Let's go for a ride." Off they went to the store, discussing mechanics. "The next day," Pennington said, "I woke up throwing strikes."

He started the season at Frederick, jumped to Hagerstown at the end of April, then advanced to Rochester in July. In 76 games, he finished a combined 3-5 with a 2.24 ERA and 14 saves. Baseball America named him one of the top 10 prospects in the International League.

Once, he was moody and outspoken. Now, he's a student of the game. "When I look back, I can hardly believe the progress I've made the last two years," Pennington said. "I look back and I think, 'How could I have been so bad then?'

"I wasn't a crazy, wild, bad. But if I didn't like someone, they knew it. I didn't know how to control it. If I didn't like you, and you didn't like me, I wasn't a good person to be around."

So, how will he react to the pressure this spring? In 1989, the Orioles all but handed Pete Harnisch a spot in their starting rotation, only to see him start throwing balls off the backstop. Pennington is the same type of fierce competitor. He, too, could explode.

"You might want to ask me that question in 10 days," Pennington said, smiling. "I'm eager to get going. But I think maybe in the back of my mind, I don't want to start because I've got such a good chance, and I'd hate to take away from that.

"From everything I hear, I'm slated to be there, which feels good. But you still have to earn it. We've got people in camp who have been in the big leagues. I don't know how I'll react. We're just getting started."

Rest assured, he won't pick a fight with a teammate, or slam his fist into the ground. It took work, and it took time, but for Brad Pennington, the maturing process is nearly complete. Both on and off the field, he's finally in control.

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