For a few wonderful days early last season, Zach Clark reached his major league goal. He was an Oriole for four days and even pitched in a May 1 game against Seattle.
But a few days later, he was designated for assignment, and the right-hander’s future was uncertain. His career then took a major turn when he agreed to begin throwing a knuckleball and to try to work his way back to the Orioles that way.
What a 2013 season the UMBC product experienced. He started with Triple-A Norfolk and then was called to Baltimore on April 30. In mid-May, after being designated, he was sent to Double-A Bowie and began to throw the knuckler. He later briefly spent some time in the Gulf Coast League and finished the year pitching at Single-A Frederick for the last six weeks.
Through all that, the attempt to perfect the knuckler seemed to be elusive and it showed on the stat sheet, where he went 3-15 with a 7.84 ERA. Over 111 1/3 innings, he gave up 134 hits, with 75 walks and 65 strikeouts.
Clark said he remains committed to throwing the knuckler this winter and next season, even after such a bumpy ride this year.
“It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” Clark said from his offseason home in New Jersey. “I knew it was a challenge, but didn’t know how hard until I was going through it. It took me a while to get comfortable. As I got more comfortable, especially that last month in Frederick, I really started to figure out some things. I had a feel for it.
“I was able to pitch with it. A lot of times in games (earlier), I had no idea whether it would be a ball or strike and I had to really mesh my other stuff together. I had a lot of trouble combining the two - my conventional pitches and my knuckleball.
“At the start, I had never thrown it in a game and I was doing it in Bowie. It was all just learning. I figured out a lot of things that didn’t work. I took the things that provided success and kept them and things that didn’t help me, let them go.”
It didn’t take long for Clark to realize that this conversion was going to take a long time and it was not going as smoothly for him as it was for his friend, Eddie Gamboa, who started throwing the knuckler in spring training and went 6-11 with a 4.43 ERA between Bowie and Norfolk.
“I wanted to get it right away,” Clark said. “I had expectations on myself to get to the big leagues as quickly as I could. Then I started to realize,’How can I pitch in the big leagues when I can’t even throw a strike?’
“I had to learn the pitch and just completely commit to it. Had to trust myself that they (Orioles management) have faith I can do it. They asked me to do it. I can’t be R.A. Dickey in one day, or even Eddie Gamboa. He was throwing no-hitters and I was like, ‘How can I not get it?’ “
Clark probably had to learn to also deal with a stat sheet that didn’t look in any way like 2012, when he went 10-5 with a 3.19 ERA at Bowie and 5-2 with a 1.75 ERA at Norfolk. Now he was looking at an ERA over 7.00.
“It just made everything that much worse,” Clark said. “The way I thought about it at the beginning, the numbers hurt, but I had to realize I couldn’t care about the numbers, I had to learn to develop the pitch.
“All the guys in Frederick were really supportive. Guys would watch my bullpens and say, ‘Hey man, it’s getting better.’ When fewer guys would play catch with me, that was a small battle to win.”
Clark was using the knuckleball about 50 percent of the time last season and wants that percentage to increase in 2014.
“I would want to throw it every pitch if I could,” he said. “I think that is the goal: to get to the point where I can throw it every pitch. But there may be games where, if I don’t have a feel for it, it may be moving too much and I have to be able to throw my fastball or breaking pitch. Anywhere from 70 percent on, I think, is the goal.”
At the moment, Clark is a pending minor league free agent. He becomes an official minor league free agent five days after the World Series. He certainly wants to return to the Orioles and is hopeful the feeling is mutual.
Clark has a very good resource just minutes from his offseason home in Princeton, N.J. Former big league catcher Scott Bradley is head coach at Princeton University, where Clark works out some during the winter months. He plans to have Bradley catch him and provide some thoughts.
“He caught Joe Niekro and Phil Niekro,” Clark said. “The fact he caught a knuckleball is way more than most people can give you. I’ll see if he has any feedback for me.”
Late in the year, Clark had back-to-back outings at Frederick where he gave up one run over 11 innings. It was a small victory since he had given up five runs or more in eight of his other 10 starts with the Keys.
Can he now see a light at the end of the tunnel?
“It was hard to see at the beginning. I felt like I was in the middle of the ocean and I didn’t know where the shore was. But that last month, once I had a little bit of success, it was like, ‘I can do this.’ Now I just have to sharpen my skills,” he said.