Liz shows promise, but Orioles fall
Rookie pitcher exhibits strong stuff, but timely hits are lacking
BALTIMORE -- Radhames Liz may not be ready for the Majors, but he doesn't seem far behind his main role model.
Liz made his big league debut on Saturday night and flashed the dominant fastball and erratic command that have earned comparisons to teammate Daniel Cabrera, a fellow native of the Dominican Republic. Liz had control of his arsenal and his nerves on Saturday, but the few times he lost command played a pivotal role in Baltimore's 8-1 loss to Minnesota.
"The guy has some special talents," said manager Dave Trembley, whose career managerial record sunk to 29-30 with the loss. "And those have a way of being brought out when you get to the big leagues. He looked like he belonged tonight."
Liz saw his debut delayed by nearly two hours because of rain, but one still got the feeling that he was arriving right on time. The rookie worked to an 11-4 record and a 3.22 ERA for Double-A Bowie and came to the big leagues without stopping at Triple-A. Then, once he got to the clubhouse, he found his locker wedged right next to his mentor.
Cabrera, who has seven inches and 85 pounds on Liz, has struggled to make his stuff play to better effect. The hulking right-hander led the league in walks in 2006 and is on pace to do so again this year. Despite his great natural gifts, he's yet to produce the breakout campaign that people have been predicting since he made his own debut in 2004.
Cabrera came to the Majors after just five dominant starts at Bowie, and Liz (0-1) came to the big leagues with a similar trajectory but without the same baggage. The 24-year-old wound up walking three batters on Saturday, and all three wound up scoring. Three of the five runs he allowed came on one swing, giving Liz something to paint in a favorable light.
"I feel very positive," the rookie said after taking the loss. "I think I'm going to have a better start. This is not my best."
"I think his stuff is pretty good," added catcher Ramon Hernandez. "He's got a good fastball and a good changeup, [but] I think he has to work a little more on his breaking ball. He has to work on keeping the ball down in the strike zone, and that's all. ... He got the ball up a little bit and got hit a few times, but when he was keeping the ball down, he was really hard to hit."
The first two walks led off the third inning, and Minnesota (66-63) used classic small-ball tactics to push the runners home. Nick Punto, the No. 9 hitter, dropped down a perfect bunt to move both runners into scoring position, and one groundout later, shortstop Jason Bartlett delivered a clean two-run single to medium-depth left field.
Liz retired six straight batters between the fourth and fifth innings before losing command again in the sixth. He gave up a leadoff hit and a no-out walk in that rally to put himself in trouble. A few moments later, Torii Hunter drove both runners home with a home run off a 97-mph fastball. Two innings earlier, Hunter had struck out on an identical pitch.
"He comes as advertised," said Trembley, evaluating the rookie's start. "He's got an electric arm, and he showed tremendous poise. He's got finish on his pitches, and obviously, there's a lot there to work with."
"He was calm -- definitely calm," Hernandez said. "That's a guy that's played winter ball, and when you [do that], you play with a lot of older guys. It doesn't matter how many people are there or where you're at -- it's the same game."
Trembley wouldn't say whether Liz had earned another start, but he did say that he thought it likely that he'd "pitch again." The Orioles have had three other pitchers -- Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Burres and Garrett Olson -- make their first big league starts this season, and Liz can match his stuff and his results up with any of them.
Guthrie, the most polished of the three, worked just five innings and took the loss in his first start. Neither Olson nor Burres pitched through the fifth in his first start. Liz, meanwhile, retired five batters on strikeouts, five batters on fly balls and five more on groundouts. He fell behind nine batters, got ahead of 11 and put the ball in play on the first pitch four times.
"I've been working for five years [for this]," Liz said. "This was just like a dream, like when I signed my contract."
"He's pretty close. I think he has to figure out the way to pitch a game," said Hernandez, judging the youngster's progress. "When he learns that -- when to use his pitches and in which counts -- he'll know his own velocity. When he gets to know he throws hard, he'll just try to paint the corners with that and go from there. He's going to be pretty good."
The Orioles (58-70) had plenty of chances against Minnesota starter Matt Garza, but couldn't make them pay off. Baltimore stranded multiple runners in three innings against Garza (3-4), leaving a runner at third base three times. The Orioles scored in the third inning and never again to fall 12 games below .500, which ties the team's worst standing all year.
Minnesota scored three more times off Baltimore's bullpen to account for the final margin, and the Orioles dropped their fifth straight game. Still, Trembley didn't see anything he'd mention as a potential problem.
"What I see is guys hitting the ball hard," he said of his offense, which has been outscored 59-17 in the last five games. "We're not chasing bad pitches. We didn't hit with men on base. That's the bottom line. And it certainly wasn't because we were swinging out of our shoes or chasing bad pitches or trying to do too much. We just didn't hit with men on base."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.