As players and media filed into the Orioles' clubhouse yesterday before a workout at Camden Yards, available space melting away like patches of snow on a sunny afternoon, pitching coach Leo Mazzone stood in a hallway and delivered a statement that should prove chilling to opposing teams on this year's schedule.
Asked about Erik Bedard, who starts tonight's opener in Minnesota, Mazzone said, "Let me put it to you this way: In all the years that I've been coaching, Erik has the best three or four pitches of any left-hander I've ever had the privilege of coaching. That pretty much says it all."
And then some.
The words are spoken by a man with a tattoo on his arm that reads "14 straight," a reference to the division titles won by the Atlanta Braves while he worked in their organization. A man who has tutored Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton, just to name four lefties with solid-to-spectacular credentials.
Apparently, they can all move over for Bedard, the designated ace of the Orioles' staff who continues to draw high strikeout totals and high praise.
"I've had guys with two pitches, but he's got four," Mazzone said. "He's got a fastball that he can work a couple of different ways. He's got a great breaking ball and an improving changeup. It's the best assortment of pitches I've ever sat and watched or coached. Plus, he's so consistent with, not only his work ethic, but his routine, what he does between starts. He's very well organized and he's top-shelf."
Bedard won't be the best pitcher in tonight's game, not with the Twins starting two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, but the gap between them appears to be shrinking.
"He's pretty close," catcher Ramon Hernandez said. "He's got the velocity. He could pitch every day. He's a strong guy. And he's got a strong mentality, also. I think it's pretty close."
Reliever Jamie Walker said: "The sky's the limit on the kid. He's very polished at a young age and he's competitive. He's our ace. He's lights out. He had a good year last year, and hopefully he can continue it or improve."
The numbers posted by Bedard in spring training suggest that he's heading in the right direction. In six starts, he went 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA, allowed 17 hits, walked six and struck out 24 in 23 innings.
"I was very happy," Bedard said. "I wish they would count for the regular season, though."
Hernandez hasn't noticed a drastic difference in Bedard's stuff from last season to this spring. It's always been the same, even back to when he ranked as the organization's top prospect before undergoing ligament-reconstructive surgery in his left elbow in September 2002.
It's the results that are improving, according to the people closest to him.
"He's just got more experience now," Hernandez said. "He's learning how to pitch."
Mazzone needed a crash course on Bedard last spring because the left-hander represented Canada in the World Baseball Classic and missed valuable time with his new coach. But what Mazzone saw early on made a lasting impression. He didn't have to baby-sit Bedard. The focus stayed on pitching.
"He impressed me with what he knew about the game," Mazzone said, "and now he has the confidence to go with it."
Bedard is the first left-hander to start an opener for the Orioles since Jimmy Key in 1997. If the task fazes him in the least, his apprehension is concealed by one of the best poker faces in baseball.
Rather than come across as excited, Bedard seems almost bored with the assignment, which typifies his low-key personality. Check the opponent's lineup, then check Bedard's pulse.
"The biggest thing is pitching against a big Cy Young guy like Johan," he said. "I'll just go out there and pitch, and hopefully, I don't give up too many runs and we're able to win the game.
"It's a great honor to start the season off as the ace. But like I said before, it's only one game. After that, you probably won't pitch against another ace from another club, so it really doesn't make a difference."
As Bedard sat in the home dugout and fielded more questions, his teammates continued to take batting practice, shag fly balls and count down the hours before the games begin to matter.
"As far as predictions go, I can't predict anything. Baseball's a long season," Walker said. "We've got to stay healthy. If we stay healthy, that'll give us a good shot because we've got a lot of good guys here and we're going to play the game hard from the first bell to bell 162. And hopefully we'll get extra credit after that."
Melvin Mora said: "It was a long spring training. We're ready to play baseball. Everybody's excited. And we're going to be facing one of the best pitchers in baseball."
So are the Twins. That much, the Orioles are sure about.