Triple-A Report

Focused Olson working towards Baltimore




TOLEDO--The Orioles may have gotten more than they bargained for when they drafted lefthander Garrett Olson.

Obviously the Orioles expected plenty when they selected Olson with a supplemental first-round pick in the 2005 draft. But the southpaw has climbed both quickly and steadily through the organization to his current position in the rotation at Triple-A Norfolk. Olson's progress was further affirmed with his selection to a talented and crowded U.S. pitching staff for the Futures Game.

INTERNATIONAL INCIDENTS

• Columbus center fielder Brandon Watson broke the league's 95-year-old record, held by Jack Levilet, by hitting in 43 straight games. His streak was the longest in the minors in 53 years and tied him for the eighth-longest mark in minor league history. The record belongs to Joe Wilhoit, who hit in 69 straight games for Wichita in 1919.

Watson, a ninth-round pick of the Expos in 1999 from Westchester High in Los Angeles, relied on his quick reflexes and speed to prolong his streak. He entered the 2007 season as a career .304 minor league hitter and had struck out just 372 times in 797 games.

"I'm an aggressive hitter," Watson, 25, said. "As a leadoff batter, you have to work the count sometimes, but I feel that in the right situation, the best way for me to get on base is with the base hit.

"I'm the same player, as far as putting the ball in play and hoping it falls. My greatest strength is just to put the ball in play and see what happens. It takes a lot of things to go your way for something like this to happen.

So it was not without irony that Watson struck out three times June 18 in the five hitless at-bats that ended his streak. The Nationals called him to the majors the next day, ending the mystery as to whether Washington would call him to the majors in the midst of his streak.

"You got what you got and you work with it," Watson said. "I didn't grow up watching Ichiro, obviously, but someone one day said to me, 'You swing like Ichiro,' and I was like, 'Yeah, I kinda do.' I just get the ball in play and get to first base as fast as possible."

• With a 17-7 record in June, defending league champion Toledo had overtaken early-season powers Buffalo and Indianapolis for the IL's best record. Because the Bisons and Indians had gotten off to such fast starts, they were prime candidates to lose several key players to big league promotions.

Indianapolis, for example, lost center fielder and leadoff hitter Rajai Davis and righthander John Van Benschoten. Buffalo, meanwhile, was without outfielders Ben Francisco and Franklin Gutierrez and relievers Edward Mujica and Rafael Perez for stretches.

PACIFIC PORTS

• Nashville lost elite prospects Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo to big league callups in the span of about a month, but that didn't render the Sounds devoid of intriguing prospects. Lefthander Manny Parra took special exception, tossing a perfect game June 25 at Round Rock, in just his second Triple-A start.

The 24-year-old lefthander, who the Brewers selected in the 26th round of the 2001 draft from American River (Calif.) Junior College and signed in 2002, needed just 107 pitches to retire 27 batters, 11 of them on strikeouts. The Sounds won 3-0.

Though the Express were a low-contact, low-average outfit, that did little to diminish Parra's effort, as his fastball registered in the mid-90s even into the ninth inning.

• After a spotty and injury-plagued introduction to Triple-A last season, Sacramento first baseman Daric Barton was faring much better in a repeat of the PCL. The 21-year-old Barton was hitting .512/.549/.732 with 13 doubles in June.

Drafted as a catcher by the Cardinals in the first round of the 2003 draft--and subsequently traded to the Athletics for Mark Mulder--Barton has had his growing pains at the hot corner, a position he had learned on the job with the River Cats. An average defender at first base, Barton has committed nine errors in 17 games (.816) at third base.

• As they did with lefty John Danks last season, the Rangers bumped righthander Eric Hurley, 20, to Triple-A just three years after drafting him. A first-round pick in 2004 from a Jacksonville high school, Hurley went 7-2, 3.25 with Double-A Frisco this season, and a combined 10-3, 2.86 at the level, including the 2006 season, with 107 strikeouts and 38 walks in 125 2/3 innings.

Contributing: Ben Badler.
The 23-year-old Olson has fared well with the Tides, posting a deceiving 6-6 mark for a team that has the league's worst record. Perhaps a better indicator of how the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder has pitched is his 3.71 ERA and his 84 strikeouts in an International League-leading 97 innings.

"He's done a very good job for his first time in Triple-A," Norfolk manager Gary Allenson said. "He's gone through a couple of bouts of wildness, where it's been a little tougher to set the hitter up. But overall he's done a great job."

Olson has pitched consistently for the Tides, giving up three runs or fewer in all but four of his first 16 starts. And consistency has become one unexpected hallmark of the Cal Poly product.

Olson went 2-1, 1.58 in 11 appearances for short-season Aberdeen in 2005, quickly earning a promotion to high Class A Frederick, where he had a 3.14 ERA in three starts and helped pitch the Keys to the Carolina League title.

He split last year evenly between Frederick and Double-A Bowie, going 4-4, 2.77 in 14 starts with the Keys before going 6-5, 3.42 in 14 starts for the Baysox. His combined total of 162 strikeouts was tops in Baltimore's organization and 16th-best in the minor leagues.

"I felt at each level I've had a chance to experience some ups and downs," Olson said. "I feel like when I've made the adjustment (to a particular level), I've moved up to the next level. I don't think I've ever spent too much time at one level, and as a result I've been forced to make adjustments quickly."

Taking It To The Next Level

Olson said there have been several adjustments he has been forced to make in his first season of Triple-A ball.

"I've had to be consistent with the fastball," he said. "I have to be able to locate all three pitches in the strike zone. And I have to make two-strike pitches when I get ahead of a hitter.

"I feel here hitters have more of an idea of what they want to do, and if you don't execute your pitches you're going to get punished. But I think you can set up hitters a little bit more here."

Olson's repertoire includes a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a circle changeup and a slurve that features curveball spin but moves more in a 10-to-4 arc instead of the 12-to-6 trajectory of a traditional curve.

But the southpaw's success has come from more than just his stuff. One trait the Orioles organization loves is Olson's willingness to listen and learn.

"I think it's just hard work and being open to new ideas," he said. "I've tried to be a sponge, soaking up what I need and letting go what I don't."

That willingness to learn, as well as Olson's work ethic, have combined for another unanticipated benefit Baltimore got in Olson.

"(Olson's work ethic) is just a couple of notches on this side of Roger Clemens," Allenson said. "This kid is in shape--he does a lot of things between starts, whether it's cardio or whatever. He'll have his legs in August, because he's in shape.

"You don't find a lot of those guys walking around who are that dedicated."

Focus On The Task At Hand

But the final unexpected bonus Olson provides is a feel for pitching that doesn't register on a radar gun or tabulate on a stat sheet.

"The one thing I like about him is that when he's got guys on base he takes his time getting out of (the jam)," said Allenson, a former big league catcher. "He doesn't get flustered and he doesn't get panicked, and you'll see young pitchers want to hurry to get out of jam because it's an uncomfortable situation."

Both Allenson and Olson said the young lefthander still has a few things to work on in Triple-A, and those tweaks all center on Olson's consistency.

"He needs to be more consistent with his breaking ball," Allenson said. "At times it's a plus pitch, but at other times it's a little flat, and he won't get away with that in the big leagues.

"And he needs to locate his pitches. He's had a couple of games where he has located his fastball on the inside corner to righthanded hitters, and they freeze up on it. And I think his changeup has really improved since the start of the season."

For Olson, the key is being consistent for a longer period of time.

"I want to go deeper into the game, get a couple of (complete games) and be consistent in going deep into a game," said Olson, who had one complete game. "I want to be consistent with repeating my mechanics so I can be consistent in the strike zone."

While there is just one more step for Olson to take in his goal of reaching the big leagues, it, too, would be unexpected--not because he doesn't have the tools to pitch in the majors, but because Olson isn't spending much time trying to determine his chances of getting a callup to Baltimore.

"There would be times that I would look at it, but now I just focus on how many days there are until my next start," he said. "I can't control where I am today, tomorrow or a week from now, so I try to focus on today."

John Wagner covers the International League for the Toledo (Ohio) Blade.