Barely five minutes into the first inning last night Chicago White Sox slugger Jim Thome launched a towering three-run homer to center field and signaled that this was not going to be the night Adam Loewen chased away the concern that has been growing up around him for the past two months.
Loewen worked to a full count against leadoff man Nick Swisher and gave up a sharp single to right. He walked Orlando Cabrera on four pitches. And Thome did what Thome does to inexperienced pitchers with shaky command.
None of it should have surprised anyone. Loewen led the majors in walks during the spring and has been struggling to find the right part of the strike zone since he returned from having that screw put in his left elbow last June. His preseason ERA was 7.56. His regular-season ERA before last night was 7.45. He has a combined 31 walks in 32 1/3 innings since the start of the exhibition season.
Those are startling numbers at this level, even this early in the season. They are particularly startling when you factor in that Loewen had to be pushed back in the spring rotation with soreness in his shoulder, though everyone insists there is nothing physically wrong with him.
No one's disputing that. His velocity and arm strength have not been at issue. He simply has been unable to put the ball where he wants it and has been largely ineffective in each of his first three regular-season starts.
There was a bright side last night. He managed to hold things together for six innings after Thome's home run, but he needed a couple of big outfield assists from Nick Markakis and Luke Scott to mute the ill effect of five walks and 11 total base runners. If all you looked at was the box score, it was a quality start, but the best that could be said about Loewen's performance was that it kept the Orioles in the game and allowed him to stiff-arm early questions about his security in the rotation.
Not that he has anything to worry about. He's going to keep getting the ball until he gets it figured out.
"Adam is likely to be a key part of our future and we're going to have to give him the time to get back to where he's been and go from there," Orioles president Andy MacPhail said yesterday.
True enough, the Orioles have a lot invested in Loewen, their first pick in the 2002 draft. He is considered to be one of the cornerstones of the club's re-emphasis on young pitching. He's a talented kid with a great attitude and great makeup, which was evident in the way he kept his wits about him during another tough outing. He just got pushed back by the freak stress fracture that cut short his 2007 season after six starts.
"I'm not frustrated at all," Loewen said after the game. "When I look at the big picture, I got through some innings. I'm not where I want to be, but it's early in the season. I feel things are going to come around."
If you ask manager Dave Trembley, he'll tell you Loewen also might be the victim of unrealistic expectations this year.
"I almost equate it to a guy who missed an entire season and had arm surgery," Trembley said yesterday. "I think that first year back is almost like a given [that a pitcher will struggle]. I think next year, and as the year goes on this year, he'll become better and he'll become stronger. But starting off, I don't think he's where he was."
This is another situation where the long-term plan clearly trumps the uplifting start. The Orioles are not going to fiddle with the rotation for some short-term payoff, just because the team is playing above expectations through the first few weeks of the new season.
Loewen is lucky to be in a situation where the club can afford to show almost unlimited patience. So are Adam Jones and the other young players who hope to be the nucleus of a rejuvenated Orioles franchise.
This is the one year in which the rebuilding O's have the luxury of letting the chips fall whereever they may, and both Trembley and MacPhail seem willing to do just that.