O's hope Liz makes noise as top pitcher

His collarbone clicks, as does his repertoire

February 27, 2007|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,Sun Reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- The clicking sound began as a mystery, then grew into a concern.

And it was so audible that players and coaches sitting in the dugout last season could hear it.

Orioles pitching prospect Radhames Liz would unleash mid-90s fastballs, first at Single-A Frederick and later at Double-A Bowie, and the guessing would begin.

One theory held that his long fingers were snapping against his palm. Or maybe his shoulder was out of whack. Or he was storing crickets in his back pocket.

"I'm sitting there getting nauseous listening to this thing," said Bowie pitching coach Scott McGregor. "I kept waiting for him to throw a pitch and just drop on the mound."

When the sound followed Liz to the Orioles' spring training complex earlier this month, head trainer Richie Bancells discovered the source. It was emanating from Liz's scapula, or collarbone, which has led to treatments and exercises designed to build up the surrounding muscles.

"It's a phenomena, it's a rarity, but it's not a painful thing. It's nothing that's going to hurt him. That makes me feel better," McGregor said.

"It's just a snapping scapula. I said, `You're not double-talking me, are you?' "

That would be a tall order for someone who's still learning the language after first coming to the United States in 2005. Liz, 23, spent two years pitching in the Dominican Summer League before the Orioles assigned him to low Single-A Delmarva and later transferred him to short-season Single-A Aberdeen, where he held opponents to a .188 batting average and once struck out 15 hitters in six scoreless innings.

Baseball America named Liz the Orioles' fifth-best prospect last season after he went a combined 9-6 with a 3.78 ERA and 149 strikeouts in 26 starts between Frederick and Bowie. The eyes told everyone that he was a legitimate prospect. The ears made you wonder how long he would hold up.

"I didn't know where the sound was coming from," he said. "When I'm pitching, I don't hear it that many times. All the guys told me they hear it a lot, but I might hear it one time.

"They're working with me. I have a little hurt in my back, but it's nothing bad. I'm just trying to play. I've had it for maybe five years."

If McGregor closes his ears, Liz reminds him of a right-handed version of four-time All-Star Vida Blue. Carlos Bernhardt, the scout who discovered Liz in El Seybo, draws comparisons to Bob Gibson.

"The same kind of body, the way he was throwing the ball," Bernhardt said. "At that time, he was only throwing 85 to 86 with a nice, clean delivery. We signed him, and as soon as he got here, he started throwing 90."

Liz has unusually long arms. He also has two changeups, which move to either side, a sinking fastball, a slider and a curveball. And he's no longer afraid to use them in any count.

Before reaching Bowie, Liz had a tendency to rely almost exclusively on his heat when batters got ahead of him. Once he moved up to Double-A, "that didn't work out so well," said Doc Watson, the Orioles' minor league pitching coordinator.

"He struggled early," Watson said of Liz, who didn't earn a decision in six starts through August, posting a 7.57 ERA. "They wouldn't chase the high fastball, and he started having to go to a secondary pitch. He's coming along.

"He always had a breaking ball, but he didn't throw it for strikes enough so they didn't have to worry about it. But he developed a more consistent breaking ball and a changeup. Now they couldn't just sit on one pitch. All of a sudden, the confidence came back."

Liz was 4-0 with a 1.18 ERA in his first seven starts at Frederick, striking out 13 over five hitless innings in his debut. He also threw six shutout innings in his first start for Bowie and seven scoreless innings in his third, before running out of steam in August.

Liz went 0-1 with a 2.42 ERA in 26 innings for Estrellas in the Dominican Winter League, holding opponents to a .187 average. And he's looked good in camp.

The Orioles most likely will keep Liz in Bowie to start the season.

"If he pitches the way he did in winter ball," Bernhardt said, "I believe he's one year away from the majors."

And there's a sound the Orioles want to hear.

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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