Towering potential

Adam Loewen showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie and says he's ready to stand tall in the Orioles' starting rotation.

Spring Training Preview

February 11, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN REPORTER

Not long after receiving the best news of his young professional career, Adam Loewen sat alone on a bus.

Leaving his Bowie Baysox uniform behind, the 22-year-old pitcher boarded a bus in Altoona, Pa., to catch a flight in Pittsburgh the next morning. He was headed to Seattle, where he would make his major league debut for the Orioles the next night against the Mariners.

The two-hour ride would give Loewen time to notify family and friends that he had finally gotten the call. But the driver got lost trying to navigate through the Pennsylvania night, leaving Loewen four hours to wrestle with his emotions. They ranged from excitement to pure disbelief.

It was, after all, just a year earlier when the routine act of throwing a fastball for a strike against a Single-A hitter had frustrated him so much that he wondered if he'd ever pitch in the major leagues.

"It always seemed so far away," Loewen said. "I remember when I was in Frederick, I had three of the nastiest outings you could have. I went to [pitching coach Scott McGregor] and said, `Scotty, you think the Orioles would let me hit? This is just not working out.' "

Seated at a Canton coffee shop early last week not far from the townhouse he shares with one of his best friends, Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, the 6-foot-5 Loewen laughed as he recalled the story. For most of the past four months, he has tried not to think too much about the 2006 season, which was both highly surprising and largely successful.

He relied on some of the fonder memories when he needed extra motivation, like the time New York Yankees manager Joe Torre sought out the pitcher to congratulate him on a victory over his team. But he is ready to turn the page, and 2007 brings a new set of responsibilities and expectations.

Barring an injury or spring meltdown, Loewen has locked up a spot in the Orioles' rotation, quite a feat for someone who hadn't pitched above Single-A at this point last season. Many club officials and baseball prognosticators believe he and Daniel Cabrera could be key factors as the Orioles attempt to break their crippling stretch of nine straight losing seasons.

"I think that's true," said Loewen, who traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last week and will report to spring training with the rest of the Orioles' pitchers and catchers on Wednesday. Loewen lost 15 pounds this offseason to get down to 230 and says he's in the best shape of his life.

"It's the young guys that have to step up and be more consistent. ... I am ready. This is as good as I ever felt. As soon as I picked up the ball and started to throw off the mound, I felt like I picked up where I left off."

Flashes in 2006

Loewen was 6-6 last year in 19 starts with a 5.37 ERA, a body of work that normally wouldn't elicit such far-ranging optimism. But on certain days last season, Loewen gave fans and club officials so much to be excited about.

"Last year was a big year for him. He knew that and we knew that," executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "And he seized an opportunity. He matured so much in all parts of his game - his workout, how he prepared for his starts."

Said one scout who saw Loewen about five times last season: "I think he really, really turned the corner. He started commanding his fastball a lot better, his breaking ball is a legit out pitch and his [changeup] is developing. I think he could be a legitimate top-of-the-rotation guy."

Even in the worst moments of his rookie season, the towering left-hander proved tough, resourceful, determined and quite unlucky. He became the first pitcher in major league history to face Cy Young winners in his first four starts.

At his best, Loewen handled the New York Yankees, going 2-1 against them in four starts with a 2.63 ERA. On one August afternoon at a sun-drenched Camden Yards, Loewen held the Yankees to one hit over 6 2/3 innings. Against American League playoff teams in 2006, Loewen was 4-2 in eight starts with a 3.00 ERA.

His ability to rise to the occasion reared before the season began as he held a powerful United States team scoreless through 3 2/3 innings in Canada's upset victory in the World Baseball Classic.

"When I had more adrenaline than I am used to, it seems to work to my advantage," Loewen said. "I am able to focus and prepare better. I know I have to be close to perfect to have a good outing. I love a challenge like that."

Even after his performance in the World Classic, the Orioles still weren't sure about Loewen. His minor league numbers - 14-17 over parts of three seasons with 162 walks in 258 2/3 innings - showed inconsistency.

He hadn't even reached the legal drinking age yet, so it was far too early to label Loewen, the fourth overall pick in the 2002 draft (the highest a Canadian has ever been drafted) as the Orioles' latest bust. But, Flanagan and manager Sam Perlozzo admitted there was some concern about Loewen's progress.

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