`Never better,' Riley raring to go for O's

Pitcher: Mixing more maturity with a rebuilt left elbow, the former top prospect is confident he will make the most of his second Orioles chance.

Baseball

November 25, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Though he doesn't carry the credentials of an ace on any pitching staff, Matt Riley hopes to emerge as a wild card in the Orioles' rotation plans for 2002.

Buoyed by his throwing in the fall instructional league, Riley has pronounced himself physically fit after undergoing ligament transplant surgery on his left elbow last year. The velocity has returned to his fastball, the sharp break to his curveball. A year has passed since he appeared in a game that counted. Riley doesn't intend to let his next opportunity get away.

"My arm's never been better. It's very strong. I worked hard with all the rehab, and it has all paid off," he said. "I'm looking forward to next season. I want to get back out there. I've been hurt pretty much on and off the last two years. It's time to go out there and put up some numbers."

And remove a little more of the stigma, both from an operation that no longer signals the end of a player's career and from a young pitcher who once seemed intent on ruining his own.

Riley had Tommy John surgery on Sept. 19, 2000, after leaving a start two weeks earlier at Double-A Harrisburg. He didn't step on a mound again until early July, but said he was ready to come off the disabled list a month later.

Unwilling to assume any risks with a pitcher once regarded as their top prospect, the Orioles kept Riley, 22, at their minor- league complex in Sarasota, Fla., rather than activate him. His competition was restricted to a month-long stint in the fall league, where his fastball topped out at 93 mph in his last two starts.

"They thought it would be smarter for me to go ahead and take the rest of the year off and keep working on things. I agreed with it," said Riley, who signed out of Sacramento (Calif.) Junior College in 1998."[The surgery] put things in perspective for me really quick. It made me realize that if I don't go in there and work hard, I could be out of baseball just like that. I had to go in with the mentality that this surgery has a lot of good outcomes, so let's go out here and work as hard as you can."

Part of his rehabilitation included a two-week throwing program in September with Dave Schmidt, the club's roving minor-league pitching instructor, who monitored Riley throughout the summer. Schmidt stressed better command of Riley's fastball, spotting it in different areas of the strike zone.

"He did very well in his rehab as far as his throwing and conditioning," Schmidt said. "I believe he's finally gotten the idea how important physical conditioning is to be the best pitcher he can be. In the past, he probably did the minimum work as far as running, lifting and abdominal stuff, but he really started to take pride in being in the best possible physical shape - maybe being in the best shape of anyone down here. That was really a turnaround for him. And his throwing also went well. He progressed quickly. He didn't have any setbacks."

"It was a good time down there," Riley said. "I learned a lot. I think I'm coming out ahead."

Making up lost ground

The words are spoken by a pitcher who has fallen behind.

Josh Towers, Sean Douglass and Rick Bauer took turns in the Orioles' rotation this season. Towers was named the American League's Rookie of the Month for June. Douglass and Bauer made positive impressions on manager Mike Hargrove, who will consider both of them for next year's staff.

And then there's Riley, the California native and one-time phenom whose bleached hair, tattoos and body piercings got almost as much attention as his strikeouts. He beat all of them to the majors with three September starts in 1999, but lasted only 11 innings, which were added to the 177 1/3 he threw at Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie.

Riley began the next season at Triple-A Rochester, went on the disabled list with a strained shoulder after two disastrous starts and returned to Bowie, where he used the bullpen to improve his conditioning and mechanics. He rejoined the Baysox's rotation before blowing out his elbow, which might have been an appropriate conclusion to a year also spent in Hargrove's doghouse.

He set up residence there in spring training for a series of transgressions that included late arrivals to the ballpark, a nonchalance and cockiness that alienated a veteran clubhouse and an arrest outside a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., nightclub that Riley said initiated his shoulder injury when he was handcuffed by police.

With Pat Hentgen expected to miss all of 2002 after having the same surgery and the rotation devoid of a regular left-handed presence since Jimmy Key in 1998, Riley could re-emerge if he stays healthy and out of trouble. He's thrown only seven Triple-A innings, so the club might prefer he start out at Rochester or Bowie, but Riley's reach extends beyond the minors.

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