Cabrera rescues O's again, halting skid, Royals, 7-2

Seven more shutout innings add to Rookie of Year chorus

July 11, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

On the surface, it sounded like more bad news.

The Orioles scratched Sidney Ponson from yesterday's start against the Kansas City Royals and handed the ball to rookie Daniel Cabrera.

And yet, the way this season has gone, the team couldn't help but feel its chances of winning had improved dramatically.

Cabrera, 23, is quietly building a case for Rookie of the Year consideration, and this start only added to his cause, as he held the Royals to three hits in seven shutout innings in the Orioles' 7-2 victory before 33,493 at Camden Yards.

Once again, the spindly, young right-hander found a way to breathe new life into the Orioles' season, as they broke a three-game losing streak and positioned themselves to win their last series before the All-Star break.

Rafael Palmeiro hit a two-run homer in the second inning, and the Orioles broke things open with two outs in the fifth, when David Newhan delivered a run-scoring single, and Miguel Tejada followed with a two-run double.

The Royals didn't score until the ninth, when they notched two runs against Orioles closer Jorge Julio, but by then they were already down by seven runs.

The biggest story was Cabrera (6-3), who didn't let a runner get past second base and lowered his ERA to 2.90.

"It's great for our team," said Tejada, who has 73 RBIs. "We've been having a lot of trouble early in the season with the starting pitching. Now [Cabrera] gives us six or seven innings every time he pitches."

Only three days earlier, manager Lee Mazzilli had purposely set his rotation so Cabrera wouldn't start again until after this week's All-Star break. As good as Cabrera has been, the team was getting concerned about his workload.

But with Ponson nursing a sore right groin, the team changed its mind and decided to skip Ponson until after the break, letting Cabrera pitch yesterday on his regular four days' rest.

Cabrera was cruising toward his second shutout of the season, but with his pitch count at 91 and a 5-0 lead, Mazzilli had B.J. Ryan start the eighth.

"No one here in this organization would ever jeopardize his career," Mazzilli said. "That's why you watch him closely. He very easily could have pitched two more innings, but he didn't need to."

Cabrera had never pitched above Single-A before this year, and he has never thrown more than 125 1/3 innings in a single season.

Counting the 27 1/3 innings he threw at Double-A Bowie to start this year - back when he was a complete unknown to most fans - Cabrera has thrown 105 innings this season.

But Cabrera has added 25 pounds of muscle to his lean frame since last year, going from 220 to 245, and yesterday he insisted, "I feel good."

"Every time they send me out there," he said, "I'll be ready to pitch my game."

His performance seemed to prove it. Showing a fastball that consistently hit 91 mph on the radar gun, with occasional bursts to 93, Cabrera finished with five strikeouts and one walk and allowed four or fewer hits for the sixth time in his past seven starts.

Ray Miller, who took over as pitching coach two weeks ago, has been encouraging Cabrera to use his curveball and changeup more to help keep his pitch count down. Instead of firing fastballs, Cabrera can use those off-speed pitches earlier in the count and get hitters to roll over on the ball for quicker outs.

"He's going to be a good one," Miller said. "I like him because everything he throws goes downhill."

The Orioles are 4-14 when Ponson pitches this year.

When Cabrera pitches, they are 9-4. That includes the save Cabrera earned when he entered in the 16th inning of the Orioles' victory at Philadelphia on July 2.

Reminded that rookie pitchers have hot starts before getting humbled the second or third time around the league, Mazzilli said, "Dontrelle Willis didn't last year."

Willis made the jump from Double-A last season and won National League Rookie of the Year honors for the world champion Florida Marlins.

Cabrera leads all American League rookies in wins, ERA, opponents' batting average (.220) and innings pitched (77 2/3 ).

His closest competition for AL rookie honors appears to be Minnesota outfielder Lew Ford, who entered yesterday batting .311 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs, and Oakland shortstop Bobby Crosby, who was hitting .270 with 11 homers and 35 RBIs.

"That's the most impressive thing [with Cabrera], his poise," Mazzilli said. "I think he's just a very confident young man."

And every time he pitches, the Orioles are a more confident team.

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