Nearly 800 minor league innings later, Zach Clark makes 40-man roster

If you are an elite prospect like Dylan Bundy, you can make it on your team’s 40-man roster the day you sign a contract - and he did. Zach Clark took a longer road, but the former UMBC pitcher and Wilmington, Del., native finally made it yesterday.

Clark got an important phone call Wednesday morning as he drove in his car with his wife. He was told that at 29 and after seven seasons, 171 games and 758 innings pitched in the Orioles’ minors, that he was added to the 40-man.

Not bad for a player that went undrafted coming out of college in 2006.

After going 10-9 with an ERA of 5.00 in 2011 at Double-A Bowie, Clark went 15-7 with an ERA of 2.79 over 167 2/3 innings this season between Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk.

“I’m a late bloomer,” Clark joked during a phone interview. “I went to five years of college. I feel like my path may not be typical, but I seem to get where I want to go. It just takes a little longer.

“It’s pretty awesome. Going into spring training it doesn’t really change anything. Just maybe now there is more opportunity and maybe a little bit more in front of me.”

More than once in the past some have labeled him an “organizational guy,” a nice way of saying he’s a decent pitcher but will likely never make the major leagues.

Yesterday’s news certainly doesn’t guarantee him a big league job come next April, but it says the team noticed his improvement in 2012 and sees him as someone that could help the big club.

“It’s assuring, you know,” Clark said. “You hear people say, ‘We like you, we like you,’ and you don’t really know what that means although it is nice for them to say. They backed it up and that’s awesome.”

Clark cited a velocity increase this year and his comfort level with director of pitching development Rick Peterson’s programs as two of the reasons he took a step forward this season.

He’s always had a good sinking two-seam fastball, and his ground-to-air out ratio was good again at 2.17, but his hits-per-nine-innings ratio, which was 10.5 in 2011, dropped to 8.1 this year, while his batting-average-against number tumbled from .300 to .243.

After going 10-5 with an ERA of 3.19 with Bowie, he ended the year with Norfolk, going 5-2 with a 1.75 ERA over eight games, including seven starts, for the Triple-A Tides.

“I had a routine and I stuck with it,” Clark said. “I didn’t try and do too much. In years past, I always tried to throw harder and I knew who I was, but I would try to change that into who I wanted to be. This year, I said I will stick with what works.”

The pitching program that Peterson put in place this year was not new to Clark and included some of the drills he had been doing all along.

“The program that was implemented was stuff that I would do, but not to the extent that he had in place. The dry throws, the long toss, everybody always teased me and said you throw too much and you do too much. Now the program is in place and everybody is doing what I would do anyway,” he said.

In previous years, Clark had pitched often between 88 and 91 mph with his fastball velocity, but this season he saw that heater move up a tick or two to between 90 and 94 mph.

“I did notice my velocity was up,” he said. “I think my body just got comfortable with the routine and started to adapt to it. I didn’t do anything crazy different. We lifted a little bit differently this year in season which I think helped. We lifted a little heavier for a little longer. The program we had in place worked for me. My body took to it.

“The increased velocity did give me a little more confidence but it was also a by product of doing things right mechanically and constantly having the same release point. My stuff just had a little bit better finish. My breaking balls were a little sharper and batters had less time to react. It definitely helps to throw harder.”

And it helps to never give up on your dream to play in the majors even after years of watching others pass you on their way up to Baltimore.

“How can you play and not think that you can pitch in the big leagues?” Clark said. “Especially a non-drafted free agent like me. Not that the chips were stacked against me, but it would have been hard for me to do what I was doing and not think that I could make the big leagues. Why wouldn’t I just go and get a job? It’s not like the minor league life is easy.

“Dean (Albany, Orioles scout) signed me and he saw something. It makes you feel good when others see something in you. I don’t know if anyone believes in me more than me but he saw something in me too.”

After his ascension to the 40-man roster, now Clark knows that the top Orioles brass sees something in him, too.

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