Pennington discovers relief in Orioles calling After down time, rookie hopes to stay

April 17, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

This baseball season did not start the way Brad Pennington had intended.

Pennington, a left-handed reliever who has a blazing fastball along with occasional wildness, had said he figured he had won a spot on the Orioles' Opening Day roster with a fine spring training.

Pennington did not surrender a run in eight innings covering seven appearances with three saves in Florida. In addition, his control, often missing, was in evidence, as Pennington struck out eight and walked four.

To his surprise, Pennington was sent to the minors and opened the season at Triple-A Rochester.

"It was the first Opening Day where I went to the park and wasn't overly excited about being at the park on Opening Day," Pennington said. "Usually, no matter where I'm at, I'm really happy to be there."

But just as he couldn't mask his disappointment over being sent down, Pennington's grin upon his recall Thursday -- one day after his 24th birthday -- was unmistakable in the Orioles clubhouse yesterday.

"I remember 10 days ago, or however long ago it was, I was sad and frowning. The frowns have turned to smiles. It's the best birthday present I ever got," Pennington said.

The news will be even better if Pennington, who takes the roster slot opened when Fernando Valenzuela was sent to Rochester to get in work before his next scheduled start, gets to stay.

Though the issue of an 11-player pitching staff wasn't expected to come up until May, Pennington, a 6-foot-5 native of Salem, Ind., may force the matter early if he performs well.

"If I'm pitching badly, that's one way to get sent out, but my understanding is I'm supposed to be here," Pennington said.

Orioles manager Johnny Oates said: "It doesn't have to be a pitcher that goes back [when Valenzuela is recalled]. We have a couple of weeks to relax and see what happens."

Pennington's story has been of great promise that hasn't been fulfilled.

He is, to be certain, a power pitcher with a remarkable fastball and a good curve. Last year, in stops at all levels of the Orioles' farm system, Pennington led the organization with an average of 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings and held opponents to an organization-low .152 batting average.

In his last six appearances last year at Rochester, Pennington did not give up a hit and held Triple-A opponents to a .101 batting average.

But Pennington's bugaboo has been the walk.

In four pro seasons, he has given up an average of 9.13 walks per nine innings, though that average has declined each season.

Pennington, who will be used in a variety of relief roles, says his walks tend to come in bunches and that he is usually in the strike zone or inducing batters to swing at his high heat.

"Last year at Rochester, I had [33 walks in 39 innings], but 12 of them came in a 2 1/3 -inning stint in a week. That's why a lot of my numbers look bad," Pennington said.

No matter how his numbers looked, Pennington's offerings this spring intrigued Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman.

Bosman said: "He showed that he could rise to the occasion a little bit and throw some strikes when he had to. We heard that he could be a little erratic. Well, we put him in a couple of situations where he couldn't afford to be erratic, and he showed us that he wasn't."

Oates said: "There were no promises made [about his return]. Probably more was said along the line that what he did in spring training did not cost him a shot in the major leagues. It was more a situation of what other people had done and where he was and the experience I thought he needed. His time would come."

Eventually it did, though not without a nightmare outing at Rochester, when Pennington left a game with the bases loaded. The subsequent reliever gave up a bases-clearing hit that dropped Pennington's record to 0-1 in four appearances and inflated his ERA to 13.50.

"That's the difference between a good year and a great year. Last year, I think I left twice with the bases loaded and nobody cashed them in. This year, you leave once, and they come in. Hopefully, none of that will happen here," Pennington said.

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