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Towers In Battle for No. 5 Spot in Baltimore Orioles' Pitching Rotation

March 17, 2001|JOHN KLIMA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Josh Towers has made a career out of sneaking up on batters.

So it's no surprise that he's sneaking up on the Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation this spring.

Towers is one of several pitchers with regional ties who are vying for major league jobs in spring training. Among them are Brandon Knight of the Minnesota Twins and Will Ohman of the Chicago Cubs.

Without a dominating pitch, Towers has crafted his way through the minor leagues.

What he lacks in velocity, he makes up for in command. In 627 minor league innings, Towers has walked only 85.

In 148 innings last season at triple-A Rochester, Towers walked only 21 and went 8-6 with a 3.47 earned-run average.

Towers, 23, was expected to receive a September call-up to Baltimore, but a late-season shoulder injury put his major league debut on hold.

That leaves Towers to fight it out in spring training for the fifth spot in the Baltimore rotation behind Pat Hentgen, Sidney Ponson, Jose Mercedes and Chuck McElroy.

He has company. He's competing with right-hander Jay Spurgeon and left-hander John Parrish, minor league prospects who pitched in the major leagues last season.

Sean Douglass, former Antelope Valley right-hander, is also in major league camp with the Orioles, but with no triple-A experience, will likely be sent to Rochester.

Towers, a Hueneme High graduate who was a 15th round draft choice out of Oxnard College in 1996, has inched toward the major leagues with his ability to work within the strike zone. At Class-A Frederick in 1998, Towers walked nine in 145 innings.

But it comes with a price. With his pitches always around the plate, Towers is consistently hit. He surrendered 157 hits in 148 innings last season, but his low walk count kept him competitive.

"I don't even have an out-pitch," Towers said. "I don't throw hard, but I'm always around the plate. I'm someone who survives on movement and knowing the batters better than the other guy."

Towers' first spring outing against the St. Louis Cardinals was effective. It earned him a start against Montreal in which he allowed one run on two hits in three innings.

"I'm gonna battle," Towers said. "That's what it's always been about with me. I'm not going to overpower guys, but I am gonna try to pick them apart."

Knight, 25, is durable. He led the triple-A International League with 184 innings pitched and eight complete games last season for the Columbus Clippers, the New York Yankees' top farm team. He went 10-12 with a 4.44 ERA.

Knight's asset is his ability to eat innings. His eight complete games were more than 22 major league staffs.

Only David Wells, who had nine, and Randy Johnson, who had eight, threw as many complete games among major league pitchers.

The Twins made him a Rule V draft choice this winter. Knight, formerly of Buena High, has traveled the long road. He's pitched 903 minor league innings since the Texas Rangers drafted him in the 14th round in 1995 after he was the state player of the year at Ventura College.

Knight must be kept on the major league roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Yankees, where he was buried behind one of baseball's deepest rotations.

Knight will fight for the fifth spot in the Minnesota rotation behind Brad Radke, Eric Milton, Mark Redman and Joe Mays.

Ohman made his major league debut last season with the Cubs and is in line for a bullpen job this spring. The left-hander rose swiftly through the organization after he was drafted in the eighth round out of Pepperdine in 1998.

Ohman, 23, had a 1.59 ERA in 59 games at double-A West Tennessee last season. He had 85 strikeouts and 36 walks in 71 innings, going 6-4 as a left-handed spot reliever.

The Cubs promoted him to the major leagues in September, where he went 1-0 with an 8.10 ERA in six games.

In his first major league game, he was summoned in the eighth inning to face Bobby Abreu of Philadelphia, a left-handed .300 hitter.

Ohman struck out Abreu looking with a curveball.

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