No matter his arm angle, Orioles reliever Rapada is delivering

Lefty has pitched well this spring, is 'strong candidate' to make team, Showalter says

March 14, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — Clay Rapada calls his delivery a submarine and sidearm mix.

Orioles minor league pitching coordinator Alan Dunn, who worked with Rapada in the Chicago Cubs' system, isn't sure what to label it, other than to say Rapada's release point is "out there."

Catcher Matt Wieters keeps his description of Rapada to one word: "Dirty."

That is a compliment, one of many that Rapada has gotten this spring. The 30-year-old left-hander with the funky delivery signed a minor league deal with the Orioles in late January, mostly because of his familiarity with pitching coach Mark Connor and his desire to be closer to his Virginia roots.

In the Orioles' first exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rapada gave up a wind-aided homer to Lyle Overbay, the first batter he faced and the type of left-handed hitter he's supposed to neutralize.

"I was like, 'Yeah, that's how we are going to start spring training?'" Rapada said. "Not the first impression that I wanted to give, but I feel like I've bounced back."

In five scoreless innings since, Rapada has allowed just one hit, struck out five and proved to manager Buck Showalter that he has the acumen to be more than just a left-handed specialist who comes on to face one or two batters and then leaves the game.

"That's a real weapon left-hander, where you've got that left-right-left in the middle of the order and he can defend himself and keep that right-hander in the ballpark and you don't have to make three pitching changes," Showalter said. "It keeps everybody fresher. That's the evaluation we're looking at with Rapada. We feel good about the option he presents against left-handed hitters, but very few managers will allow you to load up those left-handers."

Showalter, who has declined to make any grand roster proclamations this spring, called Rapada a "strong candidate" to make the Opening Day club.

If that occurs, it would mark the first time in Rapada's career that he would start the season in the big leagues, yet another achievement for a player who went from an undrafted free agent to pitching in the American League Championship Series for the Texas Rangers last year.

"I felt like I've had opportunities before," said Rapada, who graduated from Deep Creek High in Chesapeake, Va., and pitched one season at Virginia State. "When I went to Detroit, I definitely felt like the opportunity was there. But being on a team with a $150 million payroll, it's a lot tougher. They can go out and get one of the premier lefty relievers, or in their case, I got bumped by [normal starter] Nate Robertson. I feel like as long as I put good effort in, at the end of the day, I can look at myself in the mirror and say, 'I did the best I could that day.' The game has been great to me. At the end of the day, I'm still playing a kid's game."

He does it with an unorthodox pitching style he said he learned before he entered professional baseball and refined during his years in the minor leagues, first in the Cubs' system, then with the Tigers and finally with the Rangers' organization. Rapada has made 356 minor league appearances over nine professional seasons, compared with 46 big league outings during that span.

Orioles director of player development John Stockstill, then the Cubs' scouting director, remembers the call in 2002 from scout Billy Swoope, who told him he had discovered a "side-armed, submarine lefty who threw strikes."

Cubs coaches "told me that the fastest way to the big leagues was to be a left-handed reliever," Rapada said. "They were like, 'You have a long, lanky, athletic body where you could probably make the quick adjustment.' It took me about a year physically to get used to it, the body aches. And from there, it was just trying to learn how to pitch sidearm."

Rapada, who has tweaked his mechanics at different parts of his career, still experiments with different arm angles, acknowledging that the various looks he gives hitters have become his niche.

"I don't consider myself a consistent-release-point guy," he said. "It's something I wouldn't teach. I was taught to throw overhand, and it was just kind of an option and I went with it. I've had no problems with it. I've had a couple of tweaks in my shoulder, but I like it. Everyone has different things [as] part of their personality. I just happen to be that sidearm guy."

As with most effective left-handed relievers, Rapada is able to hide the ball until the last instant. He doesn't throw hard, but his ball moves away from left-handed hitters, who have had a very difficult time squaring him up.

"From a left-handed hitting standpoint, when he's standing on that side of the rubber and his arms and legs are coming at you and with the angle the hitter is seeing the ball, it's very difficult to pick up with the sink that he has," said Dunn, who was Rapada's pitching coach with Triple-A Iowa in 2006. "It definitely is a different look that you don't see as a hitter every day."

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