O's Daal takes aim on latest changeup

Left-hander no stranger to comebacks, carries healthy outlook into '04

February 24, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The back of Omar Daal's baseball card reads a bit like a roller coaster, with 14 years worth of ups and downs.

So even after enduring the most miserable season of his career last year with the Orioles, Daal has reason to believe he isn't finished yet.

He has come back from the depths before.

Daal will make $4.5 million this season in the second year of a two-year contract, and early in spring training he's not even among the five favorites to make the starting pitching rotation.

But as he stood in the clubhouse yesterday morning, on his 32nd birthday, Daal was brimming with as much optimism as anyone in an Orioles uniform.

"Whatever happened last year was last year," Daal said. "I was frustrated. I was embarrassed. But I have to get ready for the season, and I'm ready now. I'm going to work hard, and I'll do whatever is good for the team."

Daal missed 2 1/2 months last season with tendinitis in his left rotator cuff, and, looking back, he said his arm never felt right the whole year.

In spring training, he posted a 6.95 ERA, raising immediate concerns.

He righted himself early in the season and was a respectable 4-5 through the end of May, but the bottom fell out in June, when he lost all five of his starts and posted a 10.80 ERA.

Even after returning from the disabled list, Daal made a limited contribution. And a pair of young left-handers - Eric DuBose and Matt Riley - blew by him on the team's depth chart.

The starting rotation will be the Orioles' biggest question mark this spring, and for now it looks like Daal ranks sixth behind Sidney Ponson, Rodrigo Lopez, DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth and Riley.

But the Orioles are still counting on Daal to push the youngsters who are ahead of him. They've seen his track record, and they're hoping he can rebound again.

"He's had his ups and downs, but he's persevered," said Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley. "Sometimes when a guy has a bad year, you never hear from him again. To be able to regroup the way he has shows how mentally tough he is."

In 1997, Daal posted a 9.79 ERA with the Montreal Expos.

One year later, his ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks was 2.88.

In 1999, he went 16-9.

One year later, he went 4-19.

But no matter how bad the 2000 season seemed for Daal, last year was worse because of the injury, he said. He went 4-11 with a 6.34 ERA. After spending the winter strengthening his left shoulder, Daal hopes the worst is behind him.

New manager Lee Mazzilli has scheduled his pitchers to throw two days on and one day off early in camp. Daal made it through the first two throwing sessions just fine.

"I feel great," Daal said. "There's just a little soreness, like everybody has. And not in the shoulder, just the whole arm. It was good."

Wiley said the Orioles plan to build up Daal's arm strength gradually this spring, not testing him too hard in the beginning.

"We want to get him stronger to where he's as good as he can be by the end of spring training," Wiley said.

By the end of the spring, the Orioles may be faced with a decision: keep Riley as the No. 5 starter and move Daal to the bullpen or give Daal the No. 5 starter's role and send Riley down to Triple-A Ottawa.

Another option is waiving Daal and eating his $4.5 million salary. Team officials insist they won't let money play into their decision.

The numbers last year seemed to suggest Daal would be more effective in relief. In his starts, opponents batted .256 against him the first time through the order. After that, they hit .368.

"I just want to be healthy," Daal said. "Whatever my situation is here, I'm just going to work hard and do my job anytime they give me the ball. If they want to hand me the ball as a starter, I'm more than happy to do it."

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