No hard feelings: Zach Clark on the end of his nine-year run with the Orioles organization

For Zach Clark, this was his ninth season, and as it turned out, his last in the Orioles organization. The right-hander who pitched in 196 games for the club since 2006 was released June 13.

The 30-year-old UMBC product saw every stop on the O’s farm and even made the majors for one game last season. But the 2013 season was certainly a wild one for him.

Just days after he gave up three runs in 1 2/3 innings on May 1 at Seattle in his one and only career game in the majors, he was designated for assignment. He then began throwing a knuckleball and worked on the pitch at three different levels of the minors. That continued this season.

But after going 3-15 with a 7.84 ERA with the knuckler in 2013, Clark never made it to an affiliate this year as he struggled to command the pitch. He stayed at extended spring training when teams broke north in April, pitching mostly only in simulated games.

When the short-season Single-A Aberdeen roster came out and Clark wasn’t even with that squad, he saw the writing on the wall.

After all that time playing in the Orioles system, he was released.

“I had a bunch of emotions,” Clark said. “I was disappointed, but I kind of understand it, the business side. I wasn’t really making the progress that I wanted to make and they wanted me to make.

“It was sad to say goodbye to everybody. Some guys I played with that I didn’t get to say goodbye to face-to-face. I’ve been with the Orioles so long, there are so many players and people I know. That was the hardest part.”

Clark was told of his release by Dave Schmidt, the Orioles Florida and Latin America pitching administrator.

“It was as good as it could have been for being released,” Clark said. “He’s someone I’ve known since I signed. He told me he appreciated my professionalism and it was hard for him. I think it was harder for him. I feel bad he had to tell me that. I was glad he did and it was someone I had a good relationship with.”

Clark had a strong 2012 season, going 15-7 with a 2.79 ERA between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. That led to his being added to the 40-man roster and eventually to his one-game major league chance in May 2013. But not long after that, the Orioles asked him to try throwing the knuckleball, which seemed to be an abrupt change for a pitcher coming off a good season. But Clark went along with the program and embraced the chance to try and make the majors that way.

How does he feel about the decision to throw the knuckler now?

“I don’t regret it,” he said. “But I was naive to the process. I didn’t know what the process was and I didn’t know how hard it would be. But I don’t regret it because I learned so much. I think it helped me as a pitcher. It was an experience I learned a lot from. I wish I was better at it, but I don’t regret doing it.

“I would have done it as long as they would keep me there to do it. Every day, I was hoping I’d have a day where it would click. I don’t even know what enough time (to master the pitch) would be. I can’t argue with them. I kept trying to get it.”

While Clark’s Orioles career is over, his pitching days are not. Just days after his release, he signed the Camden Riversharks of the Atlantic League. In his first outing with his new team, he gave up two runs in two innings on Sunday.

After all that time with the knuckler, Clark needs time to readjust to being a conventional pitcher and needs to get his former velocity of 88-91 mph back. He is not done with his career yet.

“I want to keep pitching,” he said. “The goal is to get picked up by an affiliated team and show them I can still pitch and be like I was in 2012 and beginning of 2013.

“It’s way more comfortable for me to be conventional. It’s a lot less stressful. I may eventually work (the knuckler) in as an out-pitch. It is something that I tried, but I wasn’t very good at it.”

Clark went 52-59 with an ERA of 4.21 over 869 1/3 career innings pitching on the O’s farm.

He is a player that was clearly well-liked and respected throughout the O’s organization by players and staff alike. Clark leaves the Orioles with no hard feelings. In fact, he has plenty of good feelings about the Orioles and emphasized that point as we ended a recent interview.

“The Orioles could not have been better. They gave me opportunities when I earned them,” he said. “I don’t feel like I got the short end of the stick on anything. There were times when I was going up and down and it was tough, but the alternative was being home not playing. I’m glad they gave me an opportunity.

“I’m so thankful for what the Orioles did for me. I went into spring training for like the first six years thinking I might get released and they ended up keeping me.

“I’m grateful for the pitching coaches that helped me like Kennie (Steenstra) and Blaine (Beatty) and I had every pitching coach. I got to know most of the managers and I respect all of them and they were really good to me. I can’t say enough good about my time with the Orioles.”

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