Keys losing more than games

Struggling catcher retires, then league brass balks at reliever's unusual delivery

Minor league notebook

Baseball

May 17, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

As if all the losing isn't enough to burden the Single-A Frederick Keys, they've also had one of their catchers abruptly retire and a reliever told he couldn't pitch until given clearance by the Carolina League. In the past two weeks. In a season that doesn't run short of challenges.

Start with the catcher, Tommy Arko, a third-round selection in the 2000 draft out of Abilene (Texas) Cooper High School.

Regarded as a prospect because of his developing power, Arko was hitting .152 with 16 strikeouts in 33 at-bats. He hadn't come close to duplicating the 2002 season, when he belted 14 homers in 57 games at rookie-level Bluefield, and his patience apparently wore thinner than his chances of a rapid ascent through the farm system.

When the Orioles didn't grant his release, Arko decided to retire. He's on the suspended list until his paperwork clears.

"There was nothing else that I was really aware of," Keys manager Tom Lawless said. "He's been in the game for five years, and he's been struggling with his hitting. He knew, and we knew, that it just wasn't working out for him. That's just part of the game."

The Orioles assigned Octavio Martinez to Frederick so he could share the catching duties with Ryan Hubele, an eighth-round pick in 2002 out of the University of Texas. The organization still runs dry on catching prospects, though some hope exists that Eli Whiteside, currently at Double-A Bowie, can reach the majors in a few years.

Arko was supposed to be that catcher.

"We told him, `This is a decision you have to make. Nobody else can make it for you.' A couple days later, he made the decision," Lawless said. "He said he wanted to get on with his life.

"Good luck to the young man. It's a very important decision he made, and I'm sure he talked with his parents and other people. This game's not cut out for everybody."

Apparently, Craig House's delivery is an acquired taste. The Keys' reliever uses a small hop-step before releasing the ball, and he was informed by umpires before a May 8 game that he no longer could pitch that way because it was an illegal move.

The directive came from Mike Felt, an evaluator for the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. who watched House collect a save the previous night. Doc Rodgers, the Orioles' director of minor league operations, delivered the news over the phone about an hour before the next game.

"He said, `Hey, can you pitch any different way?' I said, `No, this is the way I pitch,' " House said. "They were going to call a balk on me every time because the supervisor says I was disengaging from the rubber."

Just one hitch: House said he's always used that delivery, including 2000 with the Colorado Rockies. There have been a few consultations among umpires, but never a ban from pitching.

This one didn't last long. House was informed two days later that it was OK to have a bounce in his step, but not before the Keys blew a save without him and lost.

"We were in Myrtle Beach and the supervisor told all the umpires to look out for me," House said. "They were staring at my feet pretty good, but I wasn't doing anything wrong so they had nothing to say."

"I saw it in spring training," Lawless said. "It's been like that wherever he's been. I didn't see any problem with it. It's just different. And anything that's different, people are skeptical. If I saw it as an opposing manager, I'd think it was different, too."

House is practically starting over after having elbow surgery two years ago and pitching in the Seattle and Florida organizations last season. The Orioles released him from their minor league camp in spring training before re-signing him.

"I'm not breaking any rules," House said. "I've been around for five years, mostly in Triple-A, and a lot of people are used to it in the upper levels now. But coming off surgery and being down here, they're not used to it."

Triple-A Ottawa

Brian Forystek allowed one earned run in seven innings, but Ottawa lost to Richmond on Saturday, 5-3. ... Third baseman Jose Leon hit five homers in five games - two coming in Tuesday's 3-2 win over Indianapolis. He batted .474 last week and was leading the International League with a .695 slugging percentage. ... Jack Cust hit his second homer Thursday in a 6-3 win over Richmond but struck out four times the next night. ... Catcher Robert Machado was 3-for-4 with three runs Thursday, and hit his third homer Friday. ... Geronimo Gil went 3-for-4 with two RBIs Saturday. ... John Maine tossed six shutout innings last Monday before allowing a two-run homer to Indianapolis' Scott Sheldon in the seventh and losing, 2-1.

Double-A Bowie

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