At first spring camp, Maine has experience that's second to none

Pitcher gets taste of bigs before heading to minors

Baseball

March 12, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - After signing his first professional contract with the Orioles in 2002, John Maine went out and set a ridiculously high standard for himself.

He struck out nine of the first 10 batters he faced. For most pitchers, it would be downhill from there, but not Maine.

He dominated the Single-A South Atlantic League last season for Delmarva, earning a promotion to Frederick of the Single-A Carolina League, and in his second start there, he tossed a no-hitter. The Orioles eventually named him their Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

Basically, everything Maine has touched since he turned professional has turned to gold, but midway through his first big league spring training camp, he's taking none of that for granted.

"We've got a couple good arms down here in the minor leagues, but it doesn't mean anything unless you perform," Maine said. "So I've got my first [regular-season] start in April, and beyond that, I don't think too far ahead. I don't think about next year or the year after that."

Experience has taught Maine, 22, to focus on the present. His amateur career was sprinkled with minor disappointments.

He was a standout pitcher at North Stafford (Va.) High, but he never quite caught the attention of the pro scouts and wasn't drafted his senior year. Always a good student, Maine chose to attend UNC-Charlotte, where he studied mechanical engineering.

"His work ethic was always second to none," said Craig Lopez, who coached Maine at North Stafford. "We'd have the guys come in at 5:30 in the morning for weightlifting, and by the time he got there, he had already run his 3 miles. Then, I'd ask him to do something at practice, and he never complained."

In college, Maine peaked as a sophomore, as he was named Conference USA's Pitcher of the Year in 2001. But college players have to wait until after their junior year to get drafted, and Maine wasn't as good that next season.

Projected to be a potential first-round draft pick, Maine slipped to the sixth round, where the Orioles were happy to get him. Lopez had been a catcher in the Orioles' minor league system from 1986 to 1990, so he was thrilled with the possibilities, even with Maine upset that his stock had dropped.

"I'm in awe now," Lopez said. "John can play catch in the low 90s [mph]. People say it's effortless, but I know what he's been through to get there."

The Orioles plan to send Maine to Double-A Bowie this season, but they wanted to give him a taste of the big leagues before sending him to minor league camp in Sarasota.

The results have been shaky. In two appearances, over four innings, he has allowed two home runs and posted a 6.75 ERA.

"I haven't done as well as I would have liked," Maine said. "But every time someone gets a hit off me, you learn from it. I'm glad I'm getting the opportunity."

Former Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor has been watching Maine go through the usual mental adjustments young pitchers have to make.

McGregor was the pitching coach at Aberdeen in 2002 when Maine came and took the short-season Single-A New York-Penn League by storm, and McGregor was in Frederick last year when Maine pitched his no-hitter.

Maine has walked two batters this spring, and that's uncharacteristic for him. In 190 innings as a pro, he issued 45 walks and compiled an eye-popping 245 strikeouts.

"That's why I just said, `Johnnie, throw the ball over the plate. You've never had a problem throwing the ball over the plate. What it is, is fear. Throw it down the middle, and you've got a 70 percent chance of getting people out,'" McGregor said. "I have great confidence in Johnnie that before the spring is over, he'll have some real good outings. He's just been that good."

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