Groom is relieved to leave '03 behind

Orioles notebook

Mechanical breakdown stranded lefty last year

Stephens hoping for shot

Baseball

February 24, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - To be an effective reliever and maintain a long career, it's important to have a short memory.

Orioles left-hander Buddy Groom is practicing that theory as if playing the lead role in the new movie 50 First Dates. The only catch is he doesn't get the girl in the end.

Better to forget the 2003 season, or at least the first half of it. By June 3, his ERA stood at 7.41 and former manager Mike Hargrove's confidence in him began to sag. B.J. Ryan displaced Groom as the primary left-handed setup man, called upon to get the key outs in the eighth inning.

Considering that Groom posted a 1.60 ERA in 2002 and didn't allow a run in his first 11 appearances last season, his slump was sudden and shocking. But it wasn't much of a mystery to the man whose major league career spanned 12 years.

His mechanics needed fine-tuning after Groom, 38, and pitching coach Mark Wiley determined he was collapsing too much on his back leg and pushing the ball toward home plate. He also was shifting his weight to the right side of the rubber instead of the left.

Once the epitome of consistency and reliability, Groom was getting hit hard. He went 0-3 with a 6.88 ERA over 49 appearances after his season-opening scoreless streak, the worst stretch coming from May 6 to July 18, when he allowed 20 earned runs in 17 innings.

The ball was flat leaving his hand, and he no longer could disguise it to hitters because his delivery was so flawed.

"That doesn't make for a good mixture, a flat pitch and a guy seeing it forever, especially at this level," he said. "It doesn't take much to get out of whack. But it wasn't my stuff, and that gives you hope."

Groom posted a 2.76 ERA over 16 1/3 innings before surrendering two runs in his last outing in New York. He finished 1-3 with a 5.36 ERA in 60 games - ending his streak of appearing in 70 or more games in seven consecutive seasons.

"The numbers from last year don't matter to me," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "It's all a clean slate."

Mazzilli also has a bullpen that's potentially crowded with left-handers. Ryan and John Parrish ended last season with Groom, who makes $3 million in 2004, and Omar Daal could become a reliever if he doesn't crack the rotation.

"Me being older and having a bigger contract, I thought something might happen with me this winter. I was prepared for it," Groom said. "I'm happy to still be here and looking forward to seeing what can happen with our offense. Hopefully, I'll be around for another year."

Wait and see for Stephens

Unable to compete for a spot in last year's rotation, John Stephens again finds himself on the outside.

Stephens is healthy, unlike the early part of 2003, when his rehabilitation from foot surgery didn't allow him to run or perform drills with the other pitchers in camp. But he'll have a difficult time making the staff with so many candidates ahead of him.

When talks turn to the rotation, Stephens' name usually gets lost. And it doesn't seem to matter he was named the organization's minor league Pitcher of the Year three times, most recently in 2002.

"I'll just have to wait and see," said Stephens, 24, who was 6-7 with a 3.97 ERA at Triple-A Ottawa last season and ranked fourth in the International League in strikeouts (132) and innings (158 2/3 ). "I haven't heard much from the Orioles during the offseason. Hopefully, I can get a spot. If not, I'll stay healthy and maybe something will happen later in the year."

Rather than undergo surgery after last season, as he did in 2002 when doctors inserted a screw in his broken right foot, Stephens got married in Sarasota, Fla., and traveled to Aspen, Colo., for his honeymoon. Earlier this month, he pitched for his native Australia in the Olympic qualifying tournament, throwing a scoreless inning in his team's best-of-five victory over South Africa.

Stephens could represent Australia in this summer's Olympics in Greece if he's pitching in the minors and given permission by the Orioles.

Mora at third

Melvin Mora took ground balls at third base as part of yesterday's workout, and he can expect to see a lot more.

The Orioles plan to start Mora at third base this season after moving him around in the past. He started 11 straight games last season, beginning April 20, at five positions: second base, shortstop, left field, center and right.

"He looked very good today. I think he's comfortable there," Mazzilli said.

Visa trip for Ponson

Pitcher Sidney Ponson flew to Toronto on Sunday night to obtain his visa and is expected back in camp today.

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