Gem has a message: Cabrera's worth wait

September 29, 2006|By RICK MAESE

It's no mistake that when Daniel Cabrera bends over to pick up a rosin bag, his 6-foot-7 frame resembles a giant question mark. After all, has there ever been a bigger uncertainty - both literally and figuratively - to wear Orioles colors?

We've seen him take the mound and look as consistent as a flashing stoplight. We've seen him unleash that fastball and have as much control as a first-time golfer hacking into the wind. And then there are those other times, times like last night, when you squint your eyes and picture a bust of him in the Hall of Fame.

He was just two batters away from history. Up the Yankees came, and down they went. They were lined up like dominoes, and Cabrera, up on the hill, was effortless, flicking a finger, knocking them down. From that 1-2-3 first inning to the make-or-break ninth.

The no-hit bid, of course, was broken up after 8 1/3 innings by Robinson Cano, the Yankees' second baseman who grew up in the same hometown as Cabrera. But the Orioles' tall righty still sent a powerful message last night.

He entered the game with a future that might have been in question. He was starting to look like a player who might be more valuable as trade bait than he is on the roster. Even though the Yankees might not have had a lot to play for last night, Cabrera had everything on the line.

If you're the Orioles now, just a couple of days away from a long offseason to-do list, you can't give up on Cabrera now. He's worth a bit more waiting, he's worth a little more patience.

"That's what his capabilities are," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said after the game. "He'll get the chance to throw more no-hitters in the future."

Last night was no fluke. Cabrera can be that good. He's physically capable of doing it every single time out. But that's never been the problem. There's something in his psychological makeup, it seems, that holds him back.

At times, it certainly seems like a confidence issue. Do you remember what he said following his last outing - a win against Minnesota?

"I deal with the same problem, the walking people," he said.

He's aware of what's hampered his growth; he just seems helpless at times against it. Before last night's game, his ERA over the past month was an unsightly 6.75, but his walk totals have been significantly lower since the All-Star break. That's the kind of thing Orioles' coaches are looking for to assess what the future might really hold for Cabrera.

"Has he turned the corner? I think he's got a good lead on turning the corner," Perlozzo said last week. "I don't think he's quite there yet, but he's getting closer all the time. It's just maturing."

And last night we saw a major growth spurt.

It'll stand as Cabrera's last outing of the season. He'll have the next five months to think about this one outing, facing the best ballclub that money can buy and for three hours showing the nation that sometimes even the Yankees can't even buy a hit.

Sometimes, you're only as good as your last outing. Cabrera will be an All-Star until pitchers and catchers report.

"I try to take all the positive things that happen this year and bring them into next year," he said a week ago. "I'll try to do a better job than I did this year. ... [This is] my bad year."

A bad year with a beautiful ending. It's like being forced to read 300 pages of a Calculus text book, only to find that William Wordsworth penned the final words.

Who knows if we'll ever see a performance like last night's out of Cabrera again, but it's certainly worth the gamble to find out.

At least we know this much for sure: Cabrera had better be wearing those eyeglasses for every single trip to the mound for the rest of his career. Life has imitated art, and the Orioles' version of Wild Thing might really be performing better with spectacles.

He first wore glasses on Sept. 12 against Boston. Since then, he's 2-1 in four appearances. He's had 27 strikesouts and 12 walks and 12 earned runs in those four games. Maybe everyone from the clubhouse to the warehouse should get their prescriptions checked. Wouldn't it be wild if all this time, owner Peter Angelos simply couldn't see how bad his teams have been?

Barring a crazy last few days of the season, the record books will always show that Cabrera led the American League this season in walks and wild pitches. And we'll remember that he was sent to the minors because he couldn't find the plate.

But he shouldn't spend the next few months focusing on that, and neither should the Orioles' decision-makers. One magic night is just enough to remind people why they had so much hope for Cabrera.

After the worst season of his career, for some odd reason, the future still seems bright as ever.

Does it make sense? No. But nothing about Cabrera's spotty career has.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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