Riley rarin' to go

Baseball: Like most 19-year-olds, Orioles minor-league pitcher Matt Riley thinks he's ready for the big time -- and he may be right.

July 31, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

If Matt Riley is on the fast track to the major leagues, why does it feel so slow?

It's a pace only Riley senses. What looks like a sprint through the Orioles' farm system, with the possibility of reaching Camden Yards later this summer in only his second professional season, somehow seems more like plodding to the talented left-hander.

He's the organization's jewel, and he's fighting to stay patient while he shines. Lower Single-A Delmarva turns to Single-A Frederick, which becomes Double-A Bowie, which leads to more speculation that the 19-year-old -- he'll turn 20 on Monday -- will soon join the Orioles.

Bring it on, Riley says.

"It sounds funny, but I envision myself doing this kind of stuff," he says. "I envision myself moving this quickly. That's what I expect out of myself."

He's not the only one. Ever since he strolled to the Orioles' bullpen and threw for club officials after signing as a third-round pick in May 1998, Riley has been the focal point of the farm system's revitalization. Touted almost immediately as its best prospect, he has done nothing to disappoint.

Though his record was a mediocre 5-4 at Delmarva last year, Riley was just about untouchable. He gave up only 11 earned runs in 83 innings, walking 44, striking out 136 and not allowing a homer. He began this season at Frederick, going 3-2 with a 2.61 ERA in eight starts before being promoted to Bowie, where, after losing last night to Erie, he's 7-3 with a 2.65 ERA, 24 walks and 82 strikeouts in 85 innings.

He has a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a curveball that freezes hitters on the hottest nights. But there's another quality, which farm director Tom Trebelhorn also sees in Mike Mussina and Greg Maddux, that separates Riley from most pitchers his age. It's a quality that can't be measured on a radar gun but is essential if he's going to become more than just another minor-league phenomenon.

"If he has all his pitches, he has devastating stuff. But even if he doesn't, he seems to find a way. For a young kid, that's a rare skill," Trebelhorn says.

"Kids with great stuff, when they don't have it for a game, so many times they cave in. He doesn't cave in. He seems to have that will to win that allows him to figure out what to do. That trait impresses me more about Matt Riley than his 95-mph fastball."

One thing Riley never lacks is confidence. It borders on cockiness, but without the grating edge.

Ask Riley whether he feels prepared should the Orioles call tomorrow, and he'll answer in the affirmative. There isn't a trace of smugness. Just honesty.

"Oh yeah, I'm ready for any opportunity, especially pitching in the big leagues," he said. "That's what you wait for your whole life. I've improved on a lot of things, and it wouldn't hurt me at all to get a chance up there.

"I've improved a lot since last year in everything the Orioles have asked me to work on. I've improved dramatically. But you never stop learning. There are situational parts of the game. That's the biggest part, being able to pitch with runners on base and no outs, stuff like that. Being able to make adjustments. You're always going to have to do that because hitters in the big leagues will make adjustments on you in a second."

Riley has kept to a pretty rigid schedule. He passed on the Pan American Games, preferring not to tweak a routine that has served him well and sensing that the Orioles were cool to the idea. He was kept out of the Double-A All-Star Game because manager Joe Ferguson determined that a few days off would better serve him.

If Riley's going to reach Baltimore this year, he'll most likely jump over Triple-A Rochester to get there. Trebelhorn said it's more beneficial for Riley to feel the heat of a pennant race -- the Baysox are in second place in the Eastern League's South Division -- than taking another step up the minor-league ladder.

This raises a familiar question, one Trebelhorn and other club officials are used to getting when Riley's name comes up. Is the California native being rushed? Is too much happening too soon?

The majors offer idle time and idle money, which can be poison to a young player. Rocky Coppinger didn't handle them well, failing to live up to his vast potential before being shipped to Milwaukee earlier this month with just one victory since his rookie season in 1996. Others have strayed just as far off the path.

Orioles manager Ray Miller advocates Riley's promotion, citing a list of Hall of Fame pitchers who broke into the majors before they were 20. "I don't want to get his hopes too high, but it's been talked about. In the right scenario, if he's healthy I like him. It would be nice to have a left-handed starter."

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