O's find twists to Daal's turns

Lefty deceptive to hitters, not to mention managers

April 15, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

His career has been as unsettling as his windup, but in the end, Orioles left-hander Omar Daal always seems to get it right.

He starts his throwing motion by turning his back to the hitter, and for that split-second, he looks headed the wrong way. Then he pivots and throws, righting himself just in time to throw a strike.

Daal lost 19 games one season, twice risking the dubious distinction of losing 20, and came back the following year as the Philadelphia Phillies' Opening Day starter.

This spring, he struggled for the Orioles, leaving manager Mike Hargrove with doubts. But when the regular-season bell rang, Daal answered with a solid performance at Camden Yards.

His second start was shakier, last Tuesday at Tampa Bay, and at least one scout noticed a decrease in Daal's velocity from last season. He pitches again tonight in Cleveland, and Hargrove knows he had better keep the antacid tablets close.

"If he's pitching good, I feel real good about him," Hargrove said. "And if he's not, I don't feel real good about him. That really sums it up."

The Orioles haven't had a left-hander as a regular member of their starting rotation since Jimmy Key in 1998, two seasons before Hargrove arrived.

Daal, 31, filled that void when the club outbid the Chicago White Sox and gave him a two-year, $7.5 million contract in January. Since Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan took over the Orioles' baseball operations department, Daal's is the only guaranteed multi-year deal they have signed.

So everyone was a little uneasy when Daal went through the spring with a 6.95 ERA. Daal said his arm felt dead for about two weeks, a common affliction for pitchers during spring training.

"But I knew I would be ready to start the season," Daal said.

On April 2, he proved it. He kept the Orioles in a tight-pitched game with Cleveland until the seventh inning and left with his new team trailing 2-1.

Eventually four earned runs were charged to Daal, but Hargrove was encouraged.

Then, last Tuesday, the Orioles staked Daal to a 6-0 lead against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Daal left after the fifth inning with the Orioles ahead 6-4, and they wound up losing in 10 innings.

"There's no excuse to lose the game when you're ahead 6-0," Daal said. "But it happens."

One scout who watched that game said Daal's fastball ranged from 83 to 86 mph. "He was throwing 86 [mph] last year, and he could reach back and hit 88-89. That plays up pretty good with his changeup. But I think a lot of pitchers go through that this time of year. I like him. The best thing he has going is his deception. I think he'll give them a lot of innings by the end of the year."

Daal has been rewarding teams for their patience since he broke into the big leagues in 1993, sitting alongside Pedro Martinez in the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen.

Daal made stops in Montreal and Toronto, pitching mostly as a reliever, until he established himself as a starter with the first-year Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998.

He went 16-9 for the Diamondbacks in 1999, but was struggling at 2-10 when they traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies in July 2000 as part of a package for Curt Schilling. That 2000 Phillies club finished last in the National League East, and by the end, Daal was their biggest story.

On Sept. 16, Daal lost his 19th game. Baseball hasn't had a 20-game loser since Brian Kingman went 8-20 for the 1980 Oakland Athletics, but Daal didn't run from history.

He made two more starts, going 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA, before injuring his right quadriceps in the team's 157th game.

"I don't care if I lose 20 games. The only way to get out of it is to keep pitching," Daal said. "Those 19 losses for me, you know, it's over. I came back and had two good years, and I'm back, you know, I'm back."

After getting the Opening Day assignment in 2001, Daal was 9-2 at the All-Star break that season before finishing at 13-7. The Phillies traded him back to the Dodgers, and he turned in another solid year, going 11-9 with a 3.90 ERA.

Now, he's the Orioles No. 2 starter, and they'll try to get used to his routine tightrope walks because his track record suggests he'll be successful.

If Hargrove had any added trepidation about Daal, it stemmed from not having seen him much. All but nine of Daal's 373 major league appearances had come in the National League.

"I feel better about him now than I did to start spring training," Hargrove said. "I think the players enjoy playing behind him because he works quickly and he's around the plate. When he's on, keeping the ball down, he can be really nasty - he really can. And he's a very, very good competitor."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Cleveland Indians

Site: Jacobs Field, Cleveland

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: CN8/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Omar Daal (0-1, 5.56) vs. Indians' Jason Davis (0-2, 12.86)

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