Clark not flashy, but 'gets people out'
Right-hander taking advantage of opportunity in first big league camp
FORT MYERS, Fla.-- With more roster transactions than games played last season, the Orioles' claim of giving guys an opportunity isn't merely lip service, with evidence in nearly every corner of the 61 lockers that crowd the Major League clubhouse this spring.
It's what gives hope to pitchers like right-hander Zach Clark, a 29-year-old in his first big league camp who watched Miguel Gonzalez rise from the Double-A back fields in Minor League Spring Training to the Major League rotation.
"When you see guys that get chances it definitely makes you feel good," said Clark, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2006 and was added to the 40-man roster this winter. "I'm not a prospect, I'm not young, I don't throw really hard, but I do get people out. So, it's encouraging to see [guys like Gonzalez succeed]."
Clark was a casualty of the big league club's maneuvering last year, getting promoted from Double-A Bowie to Triple-A Norfolk to fill a vacated spot. He pitched well enough in two starts, going 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA, but was sent back down to Bowie in early June when another roster spot was needed. Clark got the call again when Norfolk lost a starter to the Orioles, and again pitched well, throwing six scoreless innings on Aug. 8. It was enough to impress executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.
"He forced the issue," Triple-A manager Ron Johnson said of Clark. "It was like, 'Well, is he going to go back to Double-A? And [Duquette] was like, 'No, he's not.' Because he threw one night when he was there. He was like, 'He's going to stay here'. And he pitched very well for us."
Clark -- who turned 29 at the Double-A All-Star game -- won 15 games combined last season and went 5-2 with a 1.75 ERA in eight games (seven starts) for Norfolk. In 121 1/3 Double-A innings, Clark allowed 43 earned runs on 112 hits and 38 walks, striking out 66.
With other clubs, Clark, who has never been on the club's top prospect list, might be perceived as organizational depth. With Baltimore, Clark only has to look around the clubhouse to be reminded that the Orioles only care about results.
"Over the course of the year, he was getting all his pitches over the plate. He's a good competitor," Duquette said of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County product. "And I'm thrilled we have a local kid work his way through the farm system, step by step. Now, he has a chance to help the Major League team. It's a great story."
Clark, who has a 2.25 ERA in three Major League spring appearances, admits it took him a while to figure out that the way he pitched was good enough for pro ball. After posting a 4.24 ERA at four levels in '10 and a 5.00 ERA in 24 games (23 starts) at Bowie the following year, Clark knew it was time to make a change.
"I just tried to be myself instead of trying to do too much," he said. "I was always trying to be somebody else. I was trying to be a strikeout pitcher or throw harder. Last year, I was like, 'I'll just do what I do, and if it doesn't work, that's it.'"
Since then, Clark has stayed true to the type of pitcher he is: a guy capable of sinking the fastball and spotting it up, making his defense work behind him and using his athleticism to help him in any way possible. He is what Orioles manager Buck Showalter calls a baseball player who just happens to be a pitcher.
"He's a thinker," Johnson said of Clark. "I understand what [Showalter is] talking about. Because you get these guys that come up at 6-foot-4 and you're like, 'If you could just do this with your delivery.' ... [Clark] plays pitcher. I know what he's talking about. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. He's going to get you out. He's a player out there.
"It's fantastic. A 29-year-old first-year roster guy. I hope he does great."
Clark has pitched well in the first week of spring games, going multiple innings for the first time on Thursday against the Twins and allowing his first run in three games on a sacrifice fly. The biggest challenge for the right-hander has been to try to not overdo it, particularly with a longer than usual Spring Training.
"I came in not really knowing what to expect, I was probably over-prepared in terms of where I was at throwing-wise," said Clark, who worked out at Princeton University this winter before heading down to Florida in early February.
"The first day [of big league camp] you want to go out and throw as hard as you can in the bullpen. But then I'm like, 'Wait a minute, it's the middle of February. This is crazy.' I'm usually still not even on the mound yet. But it's getting better. It's cool to watch a lot of the guys who have done it for a couple years and see what they do. And I know they are in a different position, but you can take a little from them."
Clark also channels a more veteran look, employing a throwback with the high socks visible while he's on the mound. And while it's become an easy way to stand out in spring, Clark said it's simply more comfortable since he doesn't like anything on the back of his knee and the high-pants look was mandated back when he originally signed.
"I don't know why more people don't do it," Clark said. "I guess it doesn't look as cool as when you can wear baggy pants over your shoes."
But for Clark, it's always been more about substance than style.
"You can tell he's got a plan," Showalter said. "He's got a good delivery, there's a lot of things that work in his favor. Sometimes it takes guys a while to figure it out. After seeing him, I'm glad we put him on the roster."
"Everyone that is in this camp, even if they don't make this club, you couldn't paint a better picture," added Johnson. "The message of what we did. Don't go down and think, 'Oh, I didn't make the club.' Just go down and do well. The opportunity will be there, you'll be given a chance. I'm excited about him."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.