At tipping point of game, Cabrera stands his ground

April 18, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Half the time he looks like a future All-Star. Half the time he looks like a future minor leaguer. We're left with one question to ponder: Can an arm suffer from multiple-personality disorder?

If you were worried about Daniel Cabrera, there were plenty of moments last night that should have suspended those fears. But in the end, the most important pitches weren't the flashiest.

All night the fastball was fast - 95-99 mph - and the slider was sliding. But it wasn't the 1 2/3 innings in the first, second, fifth and sixth that should re-ignite hope. It was the seventh, when Cabrera teetered on disaster.

Cabrera's mechanics haven't been in question. His arm has been fine, but in his first two starts this year, he crumbled at the mere hint of trouble. His first start required a PG-13 rating - seven walks, seven runs, just four outs. And outing No. 2 had nine walks in five innings.

"Everyone made a big deal out of the first two starts, thinking that he's going to walk everyone in the ballpark," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "Daniel doesn't do that all the time."

The Orioles love the easy innings, but to properly gauge just where Cabrera is mentally, the coaching staff needed to see how he'd respond to adversity. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone didn't spend the past week tweaking with the young pitcher's release. It was encouragement, all aimed at refining Cabrera's confidence.

Last night in the seventh, the Angels' first two batters singled. A sacrifice moved them into scoring position. With one out, Cabrera struck out Adam Kennedy, but then walked Jose Molina to load the bases. (It was amazingly his only walk of the night.) Even though Cabrera was resting on a 4-0 lead, it's the exact type of pressure-packed situation that makes the uniform stick to the skin.

For Cabrera, it's the exact type of situation that's usually the tipping point.

A passed ball allowed an Angels' unearned run to score. With two runners still in scoring position, Cabrera forced Maicer Izturis to fly out to center to escape the jam. It was the most important scene in an important outing for the young hurler.

"The main thing I look for at a time like this is his recovery time," Mazzone said. "If he gets off target, what happens next? His stuff is good. The bottom line is sometimes he tries just too hard. I've seen plenty of guys like that."

Mazzone, 57, knows his way around a pitching mound. He has seen plenty of pitchers come through with powerful fastballs. But the arm is only part of the equation.

"You know what I've been thinking about? What do you think would've happened in '91 if we took John Smoltz out of the rotation?" asks Mazzone, the former longtime Braves coach who joined his friend Perlozzo in Baltimore in the offseason.

In 1991, Smoltz was the same age Cabrera is right now - 24. He had huge expectations but showed little consistency. He was just 2-11 at the All-Star break that year.

That's about the time Smoltz visited a sports psychologist. His mind caught up with his arm. He went 12-2 in the second half of the year and continued to develop the next season, leading the National League in strikeouts in 1992.

"You're going to see the same thing here [with Cabrera]," Mazzone said. "You see the mechanics, you see the strikeouts. It's there. We just want to see it consistently."

Last night was the first step. After a spotty spring and two disappointing outings, Cabrera needed a solid start to remind the Orioles - and himself - what he's capable of. Potential can be a dirty word when you're struggling. Expectations are a heavy burden when you continually come up short.

The Orioles are sure that Cabrera can find consistency. His pitching line last night - six strikeouts, zero earned runs and one walk in seven innings - is one they'd like to cut-and-paste every five days. He threw 70 strikes and 36 balls.

With 59 starts under his belt, Cabrera is no longer a project. But he is Mazzone's biggest challenge. Erik Bedard is throwing with newfound confidence. Chris Ray looks fantastic. The bullpen is suspect, but Kris Benson, Bruce Chen and Rodrigo Lopez are all performing according to plan.

A guy like Cabrera, though, is the reason Mazzone is here. Mazzone will work with the entire staff, but the pitching coach has made his name tapping locked potential and making it an everyday reality. For Cabrera to be successful this year, Mazzone needs to be successful.

When the pitching coach left Atlanta, whispers were batted from coast to coast, many quietly denigrating his accomplishments with the Braves. Right now, Atlanta's staff has the second-worst ERA in the National League. No Braves starter registered a win until last weekend. It seems obvious that Mazzone was valuable to the Braves.

Through Cabrera, we'll learn how valuable he can be to the Orioles.

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