For rookie, Roberts has been around

O's `instant' success comes after 8 years of angst in minors

4-1 now, he almost quit twice

Dropped by Tigers, Reds, `I just wanted a shot, that's all'

Orioles

May 08, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

This is how Willis Roberts became an overnight sensation.

He broke the middle finger on his pitching hand; suffered a strained elbow before his 21st birthday; led his league in losses; was waived, claimed and let go again within 12 months; walked more batters than he struck out as recently as 1999; and twice had to be talked out of quitting by his family.

At 25 years old and through 752 2/3 minor-league innings, Roberts has experienced all this and more, only to emerge as the biggest surprise of the Orioles' transitional season.

"I have waited a long time for this opportunity to happen," he said. "I don't want to let it slip by me."

Roberts not only beat the odds this spring to make the Orioles' Opening Day roster, but he also became the Orioles' first rookie to win his first four decisions since Rocky Coppinger in 1996. Within a starting rotation already faced with Sidney Ponson's elbow tendinitis, Jose Mercedes' befuddling inconsistency and Chuck McElroy's eternally uncertain status, Roberts emerged as April's surprise foundation.

Saturday's loss to the New York Yankees did nothing to dull the luster of Roberts' 4-1 season. His first three starts covered 19 innings in which he allowed only 19 runners, amassed a 1.95 ERA and struck out 13 against six walks. Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, who authorized his signing based on the recommendation of Delmarva manager Joe Ferguson and director of Latin American scouting Carlos Bernhardt, is exhilarated by what he's seen.

"He's been everything the reports said he was," Thrift said, "but I had no idea he had the competitive drive or the aptitude for pitching that he's shown."

A nonroster invitee, Roberts didn't take long to make a believer of those in camp. Manager Mike Hargrove watched him throw once and contemplated his possibilities as a closer. Within two weeks, Thrift was convinced "he was a bona fide starting pitcher who could win 15 ballgames if everything stayed together."

Parallels are easily drawn between Roberts and Dominican countryman Mercedes, who emerged as the Orioles' leading winner last season after agreeing to a minor-league contract in December 1999. Like Mercedes, Roberts originally was recommended by Bernhardt. If Mercedes' 14 wins last season represented catching lightning in a bottle, Roberts' discovery may be swilling it in a thimble.

"Mercedes had pitched in the major leagues with success," Thrift said. "This young man had never pitched with success. Sometimes an adjustment can become a key to success."

A changeup that complements his power assortment of four-seam and two-seam fastballs plus a hard slider and split-fingered pitch has allowed him to vary velocity while finally discovering better command.

Roberts said his breakthrough is nothing more than a matter of opportunity after being buried in the Cincinnati Reds' and Detroit Tigers' systems. But taking care of what are considered high-maintenance mechanics also has contributed to his emerging in his ninth professional season.

"I just wanted a shot, that's all," he said. "I wanted a shot in the rotation or the bullpen, and the best way was to be somewhere where there weren't so many big names."

Pitching coach Mark Wiley wouldn't call Roberts' delivery unorthodox but agreed to "different." The motion is relatively simple, but demands precision and balance. While most pitchers tend to slide toward the plate after lifting their front legs, Roberts stays poised on his back leg for an extra fraction while his leg retraces its upward path. He will then square off the motion just before his foot touches down.

The biggest variable in Roberts' delivery, said Wiley, is the moment at which he breaks his hands to deliver a pitch. If he waits too long, Roberts must rush to catch up to his hard-driving lower half. When his timing his exquisite, he produces an overwhelming combination of power and command.

"It's something you have to keep an eye on," Wiley said. "But Willis is willing to do everything it takes to maintain his mechanics."

"I don't know if I'm surprised by his command," Hargrove said, "but I have been surprised by his consistency. Pleasantly surprised."

The Tigers signed the hard-throwing Roberts at 17, designated him as one of their top five pitching prospects in 1996, then suffered through his losing battle with control until waiving him after a '99 season that offered his only major-league outing - a traumatic 1 1/3 -inning July cameo featuring four runs and three hits.

"We had him projected in '97 and '98 as a major-league pitcher. And he is now. But not with our club," Tigers director of minor-league operations Dave Miller said. "I think like a lot of other clubs, we ran out of time with the player. It's a credit to his persistence that he kept plugging away."

The Reds claimed Roberts based on the recommendation of assistant general manager Doc Rogers, who previously served in the Tigers' front office.

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