Warming to starring role, Bedard lets himself thaw

March 13, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- -- Erik Bedard has never seemed at home in the spotlight. He has evolved from intriguing possibility to can't-miss prospect to Orioles No. 1 starter, all the while trying to avoid the attention that eventually becomes unavoidable in big-time professional sports.

Can't fault him for that, but there were times over the past couple of years when his reflexive reluctance to open up around the media was interpreted as some kind of character flaw, though it may have been just a logical defense mechanism for a young player trying to figure things out in a strange and sometimes uncomfortable environment.

Don't misunderstand. In Bedard's perfect world, there probably wouldn't be a bunch of reporters hanging around his locker second-guessing his pitch selection after each game, but he seems to be coming to grips with the responsibilities of pending major league stardom just as he is emerging as one of the top left-handed pitchers in the sport.

That much was evident after he threw four more solid innings in the Orioles' 4-2 exhibition loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers yesterday at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Bedard pitched well for the third straight time, then seemed as relaxed during his post-game question-and-answer session as he did on the mound.

Of course, if he continues to throw well and builds on last year's breakthrough performance, Orioles fans probably couldn't care less whether he's an introvert or an extraterrestrial, but the media aren't alone in noticing Bedard is coming into his own both on the field and off.

He's more outgoing in the clubhouse, and he's gone from uncertain young player to the guy other uncertain young players are turning to for support.

"He's more comfortable in his skin," Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "He's had some success. He feels comfortable in the major leagues. It's been a challenge ... one thing after another ... but there comes a time when other pitchers start coming to you and asking for advice. Leadership roles are not taken - they are assumed. I think we're seeing some of that happening."

In other words, it isn't a new Erik Bedard, it's just a new day.

He is one of the cornerstones of a pitching youth movement that seems poised to return the Orioles to respectability after nine consecutive losing seasons. Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen also have been dominating this spring. The three young starters have given up a total of two runs in seven exhibition appearances.

They are three very different personalities - two Canadians and a Dominican - who have been brought together by their terrific potential, but they've grown close as friends and teammates. Bedard, by virtue of his success last year, is viewed as the veteran in the group, but the three of them have merged into a single entity that has become a beacon of hope for a long-suffering franchise.

Bedard is quick to go along with the one-for-all, all-for-one analogy, perhaps because it accomplishes two goals that are important to him: getting the Orioles moving in the right direction and getting the focus off himself.

"Definitely, we always push each other," Bedard said. "We're good friends. We get along really well. When you've got that going off the field, it helps on the field."

If you're looking for another indication Bedard is coming out of his shell, consider his response when he was asked just how that close relationship with the other two young starters affects their performance on the mound.

"I don't know," he quipped. "I just said that because I thought it would sound good."

Actually, it does sound good to hear Bedard dropping a funny line once in a while, but he hasn't undergone a personality transplant. He's more confident - who wouldn't be after leading the Orioles in victories with 16 last year? - but he's still the same guy who probably took it literally when his first coach told him to stay within himself.

"He's just a quiet, even-keel guy," said friend and former teammate Larry Bigbie, who has watched Bedard from both sides of the field. "He could go out and win 20 games, and he'd be the same as if he lost 20."

But even Bigbie, who now plays for the Dodgers, could see a subtle difference in the demeanor of his old friend when he faced Bedard twice in yesterday's game.

"He has a little swagger now," Bigbie said. "He knows he's good. He's never going to be vocal about that. He'll keep it inside, but he knows."

Bedard also knows the Orioles' three young guns have a chance to do some special things together as a unit, but he balked when he was asked to predict what might happen if they all pitch well this season.

"You can make the predictions," he said. "We'll just let it unfold."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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