Loewen's brilliant flashes spark a familiar image

July 18, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Interesting things you see at a ballpark on a Monday night in July:

1. Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Dennis Miller sitting in the third row, chatting, cheering and attracting more camera phones than anyone wearing a baseball uniform.

2. Miguel Tejada nearly getting thrown out at second base after tapping a soft grounder and jogging to first with the urgency of a cable repairman. He didn't reach full speed until the Athletics' Jason Windsor's throwing error. Tejada was safe at second, barely beating the tag.

3. Adam Loewen, the Orioles' rookie pitcher, walking the bases loaded in the fourth inning and then falling behind in the count 3-0 to Mark Ellis. It was that pivotal moment when games seem to unravel. Loewen walked Ellis, and the Athletics got their first run. The next batter was Jason Kendall, and Loewen balked in Oakland's second run.

Suddenly, everyone at Camden Yards looked like a Brian Roberts bobblehead - head shaking from side to side, face turning a shade of blue. It could have been "Pitching-That-Makes-You-Disgusted Night" at the ballpark, but that promotion is a little played out by now.

Because we can assume that Howard and Hanks weren't discussing a screenplay based on the Orioles' current season and because we can assume that Tejada has yet to learn that running at full speed is actually a part of most sports, let's focus on item No. 3: Loewen.

The left-hander rejoined the Orioles a couple of days earlier and spoke with so much confidence. He felt that his three starts with Triple-A Ottawa - 2-0 with a 1.27 ERA - helped work out the bugs.

We can look at his final pitching line from last night's 5-3 win in one of three ways.

The optimist: Loewen allowed a pair of runs on one hit and had five strikeouts.

The pessimist: He walked six, hit two, and was called for a balk. He also amassed 92 pitches in only five innings of work.

The realist: The number that matters for at least the next couple of years is always going to be Loewen's age: just 22.

Watching him pitch right now is like waiting for a movie to start. All you get at the beginning are previews of what you might see down the road. Unfortunately, Loewen is still so rough around the edges, he's a horror flick one second, gets your adrenaline flowing the next and before you know it, you're crying like a baby.

That's the thing with young arms - you never really know what you're watching. The next Mike Mussina? Or the next candidate to coach high school baseball somewhere in the Midwest?

It wasn't that long ago that Orioles fans tied their hopes to another left-handed prospect from Canada with a world of potential in front of him. Do you remember when Erik Bedard came up? He's perfect proof that it's not easy adjusting to major league hitting, and that early struggles don't always help predict the future.

"Took me a year to figure things out," said Bedard, the Orioles' top pitcher this year, currently the winner of six straight. "At least."

Bedard pitched twice out of the bullpen in 2002 and started his first game in 2004, lasting only three innings, giving up three runs and posting four walks. In fact, through his first five starts, he was 0-1 with a 5.64 ERA. Bedard didn't pick up his first win until start No. 6 and then had to wait more than a month for his second.

"Back then, I learned that I had a lot to work on still," he said. "It's not the same as the minors. The hitters here are way more patient. They wait for their pitch; they're not just swinging because it's a strike."

Bedard says he's talked to Loewen in the clubhouse. The two can't completely compare notes because their similarities are mostly superficial. But Bedard has told Loewen that patience is important in finding a big league groove.

"Not everybody is the same," Bedard said. "I think you have to find it for yourself. He can't pitch exactly like me; that's not his style. I think he'll figure it out, though."

You look for those flashes of brilliance in a young pitcher, the sneak preview that gives you a hint of next summer's blockbuster. That's why the Orioles knew that Bedard would eventually pan out. It's why they haven't given up on Daniel Cabrera and why they have so much hope for Loewen.

No one is going to make a final judgment on Loewen based on his earlier call-up. After all, four of the five pitchers he faced have a Cy Young Award on their mantels. But now, and in every appearance he makes this season, we're looking for those flashes.

There are going to be mistakes along the way. Bedard made them and Loewen will, too.

But Bedard worked through his and grew into a complete pitcher, not overpowering but more than competent. He's a staff ace now, suddenly tied for second in the majors in wins.

The Orioles think Loewen has that kind of potential. It won't always be easy, but if he ever needs evidence of what the learning curve can be like for a young pitcher, he need only look across the clubhouse.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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