A little older at 20

Orioles: A rigorous off-season regimen and a September crash course in major-league life help young gem Matt Riley smooth the rough edges.

February 14, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The changes in Matt Riley aren't that evident on the outside. His hair has picked up a reddish tint, but it's nothing a little bleach won't cure. Otherwise, he has the same face, the same mannerisms, the same collection of tattoos and body piercings. And, as always, the same air of confidence that can fill a room faster than a free buffet.

But there also are some subtle differences in the Orioles' 20-year-old left-hander, ones that should serve him well in the long run. They're mostly stored on the inside, but are obvious to members of an organization starved for an impact player to rise from its farm system.

"I think he's got a more professional approach," said Tom Trebelhorn, the Orioles' director of organizational instruction. "He's got a more realistic view of major-league baseball, what he has to do both on and off the field."

What Riley has done on the field since being taken in the third round of the 1997 draft makes him the jewel of the system. The 1.19 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 83 innings at Single-A Delmarva. The 13 combined wins last season at Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, complete with a 3.03 ERA and 189 strikeouts in 28 starts. The night of Sept. 9 in Minnesota when he became the youngest Orioles pitcher in 32 years to make his major-league debut.

There were other reminders of his youth that evening, and in the weeks that followed -- some of them charming, none alarming. But they gave club officials a better indication of how much growth needed to take place for Riley to meet his unlimited potential.

Riley marches to the beat of his own drummer, which doesn't always keep him in step with his veteran teammates. They chided him last year for his surfer-boy appearance, his occasional nonchalance toward arrival times at the ballpark. More than one player, numbed by the hype that surrounded Riley's debut, asked whose turn it was to watch the kid.

As pitchers and catchers prepare to report to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Thursday, Riley wants to give everyone an eyeful. He took two months off after the season to recover from the physical and mental exhaustion that came from throwing 188 1/3 innings, then began an intense weight-training program in Palo Alto, Calif.

"I'm in the best shape of my life," he said.

Learning the nuances

And he is armed with a better understanding of life in the majors. His last 11 innings, spanning three starts, were logged with the Orioles. Not enough time to be credited with his first big-league win. Ample time to be exposed to certain nuances of the game that had been foreign to him while dominating hitters in the lower levels of the minors.

"I couldn't have planned my season any better," said Riley, who allowed nine earned runs and 17 hits, with 13 walks, after being called up. "To be a successful pitcher, you have to fail. I didn't fail too much at Delmarva. This was a good learning experience for me. There are a lot of things I still need to work on, but I learned a lot during all of that.

"The whole progression was what I needed. [In Baltimore] I had a lot of guys on the team who gave me a hard time, but they were there to help me. Will Clark and B. J. Surhoff were always there on my butt, telling me to do this and that, telling me things that I needed to know to be a successful major-league pitcher. I took all that to heart and into the off-season and put it together during my workouts, to push me through this year. I'm understanding a lot.

"I've got to say I've learned more in the big leagues than anywhere. I learned what it actually takes to be a big-league pitcher. You learn more than just the pitching itself. Baseball is 20 percent physical, 80 percent mental. Up here it was so mental."

Major-league lessons

Brady Anderson gave Riley two sport coats to improve the pitcher's appearance, chiding him about whether they fit over his belly and narrow shoulders. But to truly look the part of a big-league pitcher, Riley benefited more from his two weeks in January spent working out at Camden Yards with tireless professionals like Surhoff, Mike Bordick and Harold Baines.

"Those are three pretty good guys to watch," Trebelhorn said. "Watch their dedication, their almost compulsive behavior about having to get things the way they want it. Really talented people can be a real pain because everything's got to be a certain way, but that's one thing that people have who are very successful for a long period of time -- that compulsive discipline.

"The game allows certain styles, personalities, quirks," Trebelhorn added. "Those things have gotten [Riley] pretty good success, so you don't want to stifle that. But the preparation for the game and the daily business of getting ready, the behavior, those are the things he's learning. There are a lot of overnight quickies, and then they're gone. Their style's great, their talent's great, but along with that you better develop a disciplined approach. Then you won't be a great prospect who never fulfilled his potential."

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