Orioles officials treated Daniel Cabrera's last start, in which he shut out the Toronto Blue Jays, with cautious optimism. After all, they had seen such a dominating performance from their enigmatic right-hander before.
What they haven't witnessed many times is Cabrera following such an outing with a similar performance. He did that Friday night, pitching seven shutout innings in the Orioles' 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before 25,510 at Camden Yards.
"We talk about how we are trying to get our young kids finishing strong, and he's really done a good job since he's been back [from the minors]," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "He looks really focused to me. He's letting the ball go. His breaking ball has been very good. I just want him to keep it going."
Cabrera (7-8) allowed five hits and three walks while striking out seven, extending his scoreless streak to 16 innings. Summoned to get out of a jam in the eighth inning, closer Chris Ray got the last five outs for his 30th save.
"Every pitcher, when you do that, it feels great," Cabrera said. "I've never had 16 innings straight without a run."
Since returning from Triple-A Ottawa, where he was sent to repair both his confidence and his command, Cabrera is 3-1 with a 2.67 ERA. More importantly, club officials have seen the 25-year-old pitcher be more focused on the mound, failing to let one bad pitch - or a sequence of them -spoil his confidence.
"It's just a matter of him pitching with confidence," Perlozzo said. "I think that's what he is doing. Even when he's struggling, every time he goes to the mound you feel like he's going to have one of those games because his stuff is so good. Since he's been back, it's just been more often. Mentally, he let it bother him early on and I don't think he let his stuff do the talking."
Cabrera had several opportunities to fold Friday night, but held things together each time. The last one came in the seventh inning as the right-hander was tiring and his command faltering. He had a one-out, four-pitch walk to Tampa Bay's No. 8 hitter Ben Zobrist and a two-out walk to leadoff hitter Rocco Baldelli.
Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone came to the mound to talk to Cabrera, who proceeded to fall behind 3-0 to third baseman B.J. Upton with one more ball loading the bases in a 2-0 game. The fact that Carl Crawford, one of Tampa Bay's best hitters, was on deck only made the situation more tenuous.
However, Cabrera threw a strike and then got the rookie third baseman to ground out to Brian Roberts to end the inning.
"If he does have a bad batter, he gets right back into the strike zone," said Orioles outfielder Jeff Conine when asked to compare Cabrera before and after the pitcher's three-week stay in the minor leagues. "Before, I think he panicked a little bit. Now, he's getting back in the strike zone. It's proven that when he's in the strike zone, he's not getting hit."
The Orioles (57-71) needed Cabrera to be good last night after a third straight rookie held their offense down. Twins pitchers Matt Garza and Boof Bonser limited the Orioles to a combined two earned runs in 11 2/3 innings, and last night, Jason Hammel (0-2), whom the Orioles crushed for seven earned runs in 3 1/3 innings in April, carried a shutout into the fifth inning.
Garza, Bonser and Hammel have made a combined 17 major league starts with Hammel making only his third last night.
The Orioles, who broke through in the fifth on Roberts' RBI groundout, did just enough to get by. They got their four runs on two sacrifice flies, a groundout and a throwing error by Devil Rays catcher Dioner Navarro.
"We had some situational hitting come through," Perlozzo said. "We need to get our offense going, but the main thing was we came through with the sacrifice flies and the situational hitting when we needed it."
If there is anybody who knows how unpredictable Cabrera can be, it is the Devil Rays. In his previous start against them before last night, on April 12 at Tropicana Field, Cabrera set a career high with nine walks and was one short of a career high with 10 strikeouts. He also had three wild pitches.
But especially since his return from the minors, a trip that he says humbled him, Cabrera's control has been much better. Take away his start Aug. 13 in Boston, where Cabrera was pitching with a balky back, Cabrera has given up only one run and walked six in 23 innings.
Cabrera's velocity - he worked mostly in the low-to-mid 90s - was down slightly last night, but he did command his fastball for the most part and throw his breaking ball over for strikes. He said his fastball command has been the key to his recent success.
"The last two games, I throw in, out and my control is pretty good," Cabrera said. "I'm working hard with Leo in the bullpen. I'm working on that, location of the fastball. Every time when you can throw the first pitch for a strike, you have a better game."