By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
BALTIMORE, April 9 -- Never before had Daniel Cabrera walked off a mound to an ovation such as the one that greeted him when he exited the Baltimore Orioles' home opener in the eighth inning Monday. The crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards erupted after Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo took the ball from Cabrera's hand and patted him on the back.
With several long strides, the 6-foot-7 Cabrera reached the steps to the dugout, pausing to point to his father and uncle in the stands. In that walk, Cabrera felt the appreciation of fans who each season come to Camden Yards for the home opener hoping that the Orioles' string of losing seasons will finally end. If Cabrera pitches like he did on Monday, perhaps it will.
"It was such a beautiful moment," Cabrera said of the ovation. "That's never happened to me before."
Baltimore won its seventh consecutive home opener, 6-2, against the Detroit Tigers mostly because of Cabrera, who allowed two runs in 7 2/3 innings, while striking out five and, most important, walking none, which was only the second time in his career he could claim such a thing. The last time he did not walk a batter was on June 5, 2005, also against the Tigers.
"He's a totally different pitcher," Orioles designated hitter Kevin Millar said of Cabrera. "Not only that but you see some of the breaking balls that he threw for strikeouts, they went straight down like splits [split-fingered fastballs].
"He's devastating. He's fun to watch. This guy could go as far in this game as he wants. If he believes in himself and stays within himself, that's the Daniel Cabrera that everyone wants to see. And it's going to go on for a sixth-month season."
Perhaps no pitcher on the Orioles staff has been more analyzed than Cabrera, who for each of the past three seasons has shown a remarkable 95- to 99-mph fastball, while displaying an almost equally remarkable inability to control where his pitches go. What will make Cabrera a better pitcher, and what made him almost unhittable Monday, is the ability to throw his breaking ball and change-up for strikes.
Cabrera will not reveal a mechanical adjustment he made with his curveball in the offseason.
"You want me to give away all my secrets?" he said with a sheepish smile.
"Instead of trying to throw the ball as hard as he can, I think he's working on more movement," Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield said. "It's hard to square him up, because he had that last-minute movement and kind of got in on you. He's a guy who throws in the upper 90s, and he relied on speed and overpowering guys. But he had been having control problems. With [pitching coach] Leo Mazzone over there, he's focusing on movement and location."
Twice Cabrera got out of jams by coaxing the Tigers to hit into double plays. Orioles catcher Paul Bako said that Cabrera has developed a two-seam fastball that causes hitters to pound balls into the ground. Cabrera used the two-seamer to get one double play and then got the other double play on a curveball.
"If you can get two outs on one pitch, that's better than striking somebody out on five and then having to get another guy out," Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts said. "He has an idea of what he's doing. He has a feel. Whether he punches out two or 10 I don't think it's a big deal anymore. That's a key. You have to get past that point where you feel you have to strike everybody out and make everybody look bad."
A dominant Cabrera could be the sign of a good season for the Orioles. So, too, was the Orioles' balanced offense Monday. Six players drove in runs, and seven of the nine Orioles starters had hits.
Yet Baltimore may only go as far as its young pitchers take it. In consecutive outings, Erik Bedard and Cabrera have allowed just five runs in 14 2/3 innings. Cabrera's ERA after two starts last year was 11.37. This year it's 3.07.
"He's got as good a stuff as anybody in the league," Bako said.
Perhaps standing ovations will become routine.