Ryan Kohlmeier blushes when he says he never saw any of this coming, certainly not this quickly. Not a jump into a Camden Yards summer and definitely not seven saves in as many opportunities.
The best the 23-year-old can do is offer a tight-lipped smile when he thinks about the series of events that has promoted him from an almost undetected Kansas schoolboy to a secondary pitching prospect to the centerpiece for the Orioles' in-season makeover.
One of three children, one of fewer than 1,000 residents of Cottonwood Fall, Kan., and now the best-known of a 30-member high school class, Kohlmeier has not only used the past month to step from Triple-A Rochester to the Orioles' bullpen, but to offer himself as the team's future closer.
"Until recently, I never could have anticipated this happening this quickly," Kohlmeier says. "And there were probably times when I couldn't have envisioned this happening at all."
Controversial trades and much-scrutinized free-agent signings have finally brought the Orioles to one of their own, a kid never listed among the organization's elite prospects but one who has begun to lend form to the organization's coalescing future.
The Orioles traded Armando Benitez because of his inconsistency and his immaturity. The answer, signing Mike Timlin to a four-year, $16 million contract, was immediately criticized by majority owner Peter Angelos, who referred to the signing as part of Frank Wren's epitaph as Orioles general manager.
With Mike Trombley deep in a two-month funk, the Orioles elevated Kohlmeier to the role when Scott Erickson was put on the disabled list last month.
"He's got good velocity on his fastball. He throws strikes and he has not been intimidated in any situation we've put him in so far," says manager Mike Hargrove, whose first glimpse of Kohlmeier came when he was promoted. The Orioles did not invite Kohlmeier to major-league camp last spring.
Kohlmeier's success in arguably the game's most pressurized role may have more to do with his demeanor than his fastball, which is accentuated by a deceptive delivery.
"Having the mentality to handle the stress and the pressure of those situations probably has as much to do with his stuff translating into success as anything else," says Hargrove. "You can't just take anybody who has great stuff and say, `OK, you're going to be the closer.' They have to have the mentality to be able to handle the pressure of that situation."
Getting to the point
Pitching coach Sammy Ellis has classified Kohlmeier's approach as "direct," perhaps the ultimate compliment within a staff hurt by nibbling for much of this season.
Though he has been trusted with the entire ninth inning instead of being used as a matchup specialist, Kohlmeier refuses to revel in his early success. He has yet to experience the disappointment of a blown chance with the Orioles, but first impressions suggest he is a talent with enough nerve for the job.
"I never saw this," Kohlmeier says. "When I started off, I gave myself three years to see what happens. If could make it to Double-A, great, I gave it my best shot and I'd go back to school and get a degree. Even Double-A and Triple-A seemed far away at the time."
Now he is so close he can touch success every time the Orioles carry a narrow lead into the ninth inning. Several times Kohlmeier has confronted dicey situations following an error or scratch hit, most recently Sunday against Tampa Bay following consecutive bloop singles in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game. In every instance he has answered aggressively.
"There are some guys you send out there and two or three times they're lights out in a save situation. Then all of a sudden there's the realization that they are the closer and the pressure makes them not as effective," Hargrove says. "Ryan hasn't shown those things yet. He's handled it very well."
It's as if the observant, unassuming Kohlmeier stepped from nowhere into a role that has plagued the Orioles ever since the departure of Randy Myers following the club's 1997 wire-to-wire division championship. But Kohlmeier, the redheaded son of a postmaster and government soil conservationist, actually comes from a ranching community of fewer than 1,000 in east central Kansas. On any night at Camden Yards, Kohlmeier sees more people than he encountered in a year back home.
Kohlmeier's graduating class at Chase County High listed 30 students, many of whom played varsity sports as freshmen out of necessity. It was a community in which everyone knew each other but that few scouts knew well.
"I always thought there was a lot to do because there was always some sport going on," Kohlmeier says. "I never had the perspective of living in a city that might make you think there was nothing else to do. When I grew up, I knew nothing else."
No major-league dreams
He initially saw baseball as little more than an avocation. His American Legion coach had to convince him he had enough potential to play professionally.