Penn: mound of potential

Young pitcher grows more comfortable, but consistency still awaits

March 08, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- At times, Hayden Penn looked dominant. He buckled the knees of Boston first baseman J.T. Snow with two straight curveballs. He totally overmatched the next hitter in the Red Sox lineup, Dustan Mohr, on a high and tight fastball.

Then there were other moments yesterday, when Penn reminded everyone that he is still 21 years old, still learning what it takes to get major league hitters out.

He couldn't locate his fastball against Trot Nixon and he walked him. On his first pitch to All-Star slugger Manny Ramirez, Penn left a fastball out over the plate and watched it get slammed to right field for a single.

"I feel like I threw the ball OK," said Penn, who allowed one earned run on a walk and three hits and struck out two through two innings of the Orioles' 10-6 loss to the Red Sox at City of Palm Park yesterday. "My changeup and curveball were decent today. Earlier in the spring those are the last pitches that usually come. I have confidence that my fastball command will come around. But overall, for the first time seeing hitters live, I felt all right out there."

Amid little fanfare this spring, the pitching education of Penn, a right-hander who made his much-anticipated major league debut last season, has continued. He showed glimpses of his upside last year, after his contract was purchased from Double-A Bowie in late May because of an injury to Erik Bedard, and he was asked to help keep the Orioles in first place.

In just his second start, Penn fanned Ramirez in Fenway Park with three straight curveballs, creating what he called the highlight of his season. Penn went 3-2 with a 6.34 ERA in eight starts last year, but as his stint with the Orioles wore on, Penn, who traditionally exudes California cool, admitted the pressure started to get to him.

Over his final two outings, Penn surrendered 12 runs in 5 2/3 innings, prompting the Orioles to option him back to Bowie. After packing his bags on June 30, Penn met the media, his head sagging and an obvious look of disappointment on his face.

"I was down because I wasn't pitching well and [the criticism] starts to get in your head," Penn said. "I thought it snowballed a little bit in those last couple of starts. But I have a different mind-set this year. I am not going to pay attention to what anyone says. I am just going to throw the ball like I know I can and we'll see what happens."

Penn showed the Orioles enough last season for them to remain optimistic about the future of their top pitching prospect. Several teams inquired about Penn in the offseason, including the Florida Marlins, who brought up his name in a potential deal for first baseman Carlos Delgado. The Orioles, however, had no plans to move him.

"I thought he had the stuff to pitch up here," said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo. "He didn't command it very well. I gave him the benefit of the doubt because he's a youngster stepping in the major leagues. He was trying to overdo it, so hopefully he'll settle down and use his pitches."

Penn said that he exited his major league experience last year feeling that he wasn't "as far away as I thought I was." He knows that he needs to keep the ball down and throw more strikes, two areas that new pitching coach Leo Mazzone has stressed.

Penn, who has changed his alignment on the mound under Mazzone, has done much of his work in relatively obscurity at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, often throwing on one of the side mounds with few witnesses.

One of the reasons that there has been very little buzz about Penn this spring is a sore right shoulder that shut him down for a short time. Then, there is the fact that the Orioles went into spring training with their starting rotation set for the first time in several years and Penn is likely headed to the minor leagues no matter how he performs this spring.

"I know they have their five, but I am still out here trying to compete and win a job," Penn said. "I don't feel like I have no chance. If I go up there and make my pitches, I feel I can get anybody out."

Penn pointed to one specific at-bat yesterday, his strikeout of Snow with two men on and two outs, as proof of how far he has come since last season.

"I was able to bear down a little bit," Penn said. "Last year, I would have tried to overthrow a little and probably walked him on four pitches. I feel a little more comfortable. I don't think I have to do anything outside of myself."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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