Brown finds niche in bullpen

Circuitous path takes him from infielder to pitcher to closer by accident

Minor Leagues Notebook

May 03, 1999|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Want a rags-to-riches story in the Orioles' farm system? Look no farther than Derek Brown.

He was taken on the 40th round of the 1994 amateur draft, not exactly big-money territory. He was a light-hitting infielder at the lowest level on the ladder with a career apparently going nowhere. Converted to pitching in 1996, he was a starter who wasn't climbing quickly.

Then, late last spring training came the big break. The intended closer for the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds, Todd Lee, was injured during a pepper game and Brown was thrown into the breach. What followed was an Orioles minor-league record of 33 saves, sixth best among all minor-leaguers in the National Association.

Now, the Hagerstown native is with the Single-A Frederick Keys, finishing games before a lot of family members and friends and shouldering the burden while David Mastrolonardo recovers from some problems with his forearm.

"My turning into a closer was really accidental," said Brown, 22, who will join the Orioles for tonight's exhibition game against Cuba. "In one month at Delmarva [in 1997], I had pitched two innings, so they told me I had to go to the bullpen to work on my arm strength."

The previous season -- after hitting .233 with no power in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League -- Brown was invited to try the mound by then-minor-league pitching coordinator Moe Drabowsky. He figured there was nothing to lose.

"Basically, they left it up to me," Brown said. "Moe liked my stuff during a bullpen, and I figured it was best to try pitching. Whatever was going to make me rise faster. The next day, I got rid of all my bats and batting gloves."

Brown is working hard on a changeup to complement a sharp-breaking curve and a fastball that tops out at 91 to 92 mph. As a former starter, he didn't have to develop any extra pitches.

"In one outing, he was wild, but he hadn't pitched in five days," said Keys manager Andy Etchebarren. "He needs to work a lot. But overall our bullpen has done a great job, and Derek is a big part of it."

Through the first 18 games, Brown was 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA and had allowed opponents to hit .125. He had not permitted a home run; in 182 2/3 pro innings, only 12 batters have homered against him.

"I never even thought I was getting drafted," Brown said. "I didn't think I had the potential. I was hanging out with friends when my grandmother told me. Even though it wasn't until late, I wasn't really into schoolwork, so college probably wouldn't have worked out. So, I decided to try baseball."

So far, it has been a wise choice.

Triple-A Rochester

Solid pitching has been the story for the Red Wings, who have a team ERA under 3.00. Left-hander Terry Burrows had a no-hitter into the ninth inning before Pawtucket's Jim Chamblee homered. He had allowed only four earned runs in four starts (0.93 ERA), but Rochester had scored a mere five runs for him. Left-handed batters do not have a hit against Burrows. Jason McCommon, who entered the rotation when Rocky Coppinger was promoted, leads the International League with an 0.57 ERA after not allowing a run in his first two starts. Jason Johnson was one of three Red Wings who shut out Syracuse in a four-game series. In the bullpen, Radhames Dykhoff and recently promoted Gabe Molina combined for 20 scoreless innings. Mike Murphy became the first Red Wing to steal home in six years. Calvin Maduro pitched a complete game over a span of 16 days. He went four innings in a game that was suspended, then five when it was resumed. Esteban Beltre had an 0-for-24 stretch at the plate.

Double-A Bowie

Outfielder Wady Almonte went on a tear with 12 RBIs in 10 games, then suffered a beaning and a concussion that kept him sidelined for several days. Another hot hitter was DH Joe Ronca, with 11 RBIs in nine games. Of Ronca's first nine hits, seven were for extra bases. Javier De la Hoya became the Baysox's first four-game winner and stretched his victory streak to seven over two seasons. Bowie had the second-best overall record in the Eastern League and was in first place in the Southern Division for the first time in five years. Ryan Kohlmeier went 4-for-4 in save opportunities and did not allow a hit in 3 1/3 innings. Tim DeCinces ranked fourth in the league with a .477 on-base average.

Single-A Frederick

Outfielder Luis Matos warmed up with a seven-game hitting streak that included a two-homer, four-hit effort in the game started by Scott Kamieniecki. He went 7-for-12 in the three-game Potomac series with five RBIs. The Keys' Carolina League-leading pitching staff was headed by Carlos Medina, who became the first starter to go into the eighth inning in a 3-1 win at Salem. Medina had a 1.40 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings. Franky Figueroa had an 0-for-17 stretch with eight strikeouts. Richard Paz reached base in 11 straight games. Darnell McDonald was 1-for-21.

Single-A Delmarva

The Shorebirds continued to struggle at the plate, ranking last in the South Atlantic League with a .213 batting average and seven home runs. Among those struggling were highly regarded prospects Ntema Ndungidi (.095 with 21 strikeouts in 63 at-bats, including a seven-game hitless streak) and Tim Raines Jr. (.173 with 18 strikeouts, although he leads the team in runs scored). The pitching showed signs of coming around, with the team ERA dropping from near 6.00 to .4.40. John Stephens struck out 36 in his first 27 innings, Rafael Tapia pitched to a 2.61 ERA and Ricky Casteel allowed only two earned runs in his first 15 1/3 innings. Closer Juan Guzman, a converted catcher, has been efficient with 24 strikeouts in 16 innings and three saves. Veteran Craig Daedelow had a seven-game hitting streak and joined the league's top 10 in batting and on-base average. He was 13-for-29 during the streak.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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