Throwing off the pain

Orioles: After three injury-marred seasons, prospect Richard Stahl is confident he can pitch away misfortune once and for all.

Baseball

January 12, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Three mornings a week, Orioles pitching prospect Richard Stahl joins a group of young players for a series of workouts at Camden Yards. Each time the left-hander throws a ball, he also hopes to finally catch a break.

He's about as overdue as a year-old rented video.

Make it three years. Three long, puzzling years that have made him frustrated, and the reluctant face of a failed minor-league system.

In a growing line of high draft choices felled by injuries, Stahl stands near the front. He was the 18th overall pick in 1999, a prized acquisition out of Covington, Ga., who went 11-0 as a high school senior. At least one National League contender rated him first on its draft board.

"I've never labeled any player as `can't miss,' " said Orioles scout Lamar North, who signed Stahl, "but if there's such a thing, I think he's going to be it."

First, Stahl must shed another label: "Can't stay healthy."

The pain in his left shoulder is gone. His body, including the back that flared up in 2000, seems right for a change. Shut down at Single-A Delmarva last year after his second start, Stahl made a positive impression on pitching coordinators Dave Schmidt and Mo Drabowsky during the fall instructional league and expects to be ready to go next month at spring training.

"I feel a lot better, as far as my shoulder goes," said Stahl, who was diagnosed with tendinitis before beginning a rehabilitation program. "I think I'll be all right this year. I really do."

Stahl made 20 starts at Delmarva during his first professional season, but he underwent surgery the next summer to shave a hooked portion of bone that rubbed the rotator cuff, and to shrink the shoulder capsule. Renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews handled the procedure, which drew greater scrutiny from fans and the media because it involved a pitcher rated by Baseball America as the Orioles' top prospect.

"Nothing was torn. It was just really irritated, which I guess was good," Stahl said. "My first season, when I had back problems, I was like, `Well, my shoulder never bugs me.' I probably shouldn't have said that."

Stahl, 21, remained in extended spring training last year until being added to Delmarva's roster on May 30. He allowed only one earned run in 5 2/3 innings in his first start, but gave up three home runs in his next appearance and didn't pitch again.

"After the second game, I couldn't close the shower curtain or take a drink. I thought I had torn something for sure this time," he said.

"I felt it in spring training, but I thought it would go away and it never did. It just continued to get worse. And by the middle of the season, I said, `I can't do it anymore.' "

A magnetic resonance imaging didn't reveal anything more serious than tendinitis. After a period of rest, Stahl reported to the minor-league complex in Sarasota, Fla., to begin his rehabilitation.

"For the first half of the [fall] instructional league he really didn't feel good," Schmidt said. "He looked stiff, he looked like he still couldn't get any extension."

Schmidt and Drabowsky, former pitchers with the Orioles, made a significant discovery while monitoring Stahl. Watching videotape shot from the side, they noticed that his stride was much too short for a 6-foot-7 pitcher, which also was causing him to throw across his body.

"We actually went out and measured it," Schmidt said. "I'm not a guy who goes by inches, but if you measure most guys' stride lengths, they're about 90 percent of their height. What we found was he was striding for a guy who was 5-10 or 5-11.

"It's unusual because you rarely have a guy who under-strides. Ninety-nine percent of the time when I've got to make an adjustment, I've got to shorten it because the guy is jumping out there too far. For the next 10 days we worked on playing catch and also on trying to get out to a certain distance with his stride. He started looking better with his extension and arm action. Everything started to look more natural and he started to feel a lot better, too."

Still undecided among club officials is whether the flawed mechanics caused Stahl's shoulder pain, or if he was compensating for the injury.

"I don't know if it was the chicken or the egg," Schmidt said. "Sometimes guys who have extended rehabs fall into bad habits. When they start throwing again after surgeries they find a position that doesn't hurt, even though it might not be correct. Last year he looked like he didn't have the flexibility and looseness in his arm that he needed. He just wasn't ready yet."

With his mechanics straightened out, Stahl spent two extra weeks in Sarasota instead of returning home on Oct. 26. He threw all of his pitches, including breaking balls, changeups and mid-90s fastballs, during side sessions that lasted up to 12 minutes. "By the time he left, he was ready to start throwing to hitters," Schmidt said. "It's as good as he's looked in two years."

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