- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2001

BALTIMORE There are two surefire ways for a pitcher to speed his way through the minor leagues and earn a steady job on a major-league roster:

No. 1 Be able to throw the ball really hard.

No. 2 Be left-handed.

Josh Towers does not fall into either category, and that probably explains why he spent the last five years pitching at every level the minor leagues have to offer.

It may also explain why, after five years of watching pitcher after pitcher zip past him in the Baltimore Orioles' minor-league system, Towers can now have the last laugh.

Since being called up from Class AAA Rochester on May 25, all Towers has done is win two of the three games he's started, post a microscopic 0.78 ERA, walk two batters in 23 innings, lead the Orioles to their only two shutouts of the season and become the poster boy for the organization's farm system.

Choose your appropriate proverb. Slow and steady wins the race. Good things come to those who wait. Whatever the cliche, it's come true in this case.

"Without a doubt," said Towers, who makes his next scheduled start Thursday in the finale of a three-game interleague series with the New York Mets. "You go one level at a time, so every year you get a little more experience against a little better players. It's absolutely without a doubt helped me get to this level. It makes it so much easier. You're not overwhelmed by skipping levels."

Still, Towers admits he was plenty irked over the years when he'd see a fellow teammate get a premature call up, maybe from Delmarva (low Class A) straight to Bowie (Class AA) or from Bowie all the way to the Orioles.

More often than not, those pitchers who raced their way up the organizational ladder stood well over 6 feet tall, possessed a 95-mph fastball or had the good fortune to be born left-handed a valued commodity in baseball. Towers, on the other hand, spreads his 165 pounds throughout a slender 6-foot-1 frame. He possesses uncanny control he walked 0.95 batters per nine innings in his minor-league career but throws a 90-mph fastball at best.

While the 15th-round pick of the 1996 draft was going about the business of winning at every level of the Orioles' system he had a 43-25 record with an ERA under 4.00 over more than 650 innings in five different minor-league towns, Baltimore's other crown jewels drew all the attention and got their first cracks at the big leagues.

"With the thinness of pitching talent now, when you see a kid who throws the ball 97 mph, he can get away with a lot of mistakes other people can't get away with," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "So you're more likely to rush a guy like that. Everybody does it. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn't.

"But the way Josh has developed, throwing 600-plus innings in the minor leagues, is the ideal way to develop. Josh has been allowed the chance to learn his game and learn the professional game at a good pace, and to develop both the mental and physical side of it as he goes along."

The 24-year-old Southern California native might have made his major-league debut sooner if not for a freak accident last summer. Shortly before he was due to be called up from Rochester, Towers slipped on his apartment steps and separated his right shoulder, pushing his promotion back.

Given the nature of the injury, he took it all in stride.

"I wasn't mad because, you know, what can you do?" Towers said. "Any time you get in your car, you could have an accident. You could be walking somewhere and trip and fall. Anything can happen at any given time. It was just a freak accident, so I really couldn't get too mad."

He didn't show his frustrations earlier this spring, either, when he finally got the call-up to the Orioles … to pitch out of the bullpen. A starter most of his life, Towers never looked completely comfortable in four early May relief appearances, including the game at Yankee Stadium in which he served up a three-run homer to Derek Jeter that cost Baltimore a win.

But since returning as a starter in place of injured veteran Pat Hentgen, he has found his role and has combined with fellow young pitchers Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson and Willis Roberts to form the makings of a solid starting rotation.

He shut down the Texas Rangers for six innings before giving up two late runs in his first start May 28. Since then, Towers has had his 0-face on opponents have put nothing but zeros on the scoreboard over his last 16 innings, including his complete-game shutout of the Montreal Expos last Friday.

"Of course you say to yourself, 'I'm pitching today, it would be great to throw a shutout,' " he said. "You know it's not going to happen, but you try to limit as many people as you can getting on base. And the more times you can do that, the more times you have a chance to win."

A simple philosophy from a man who had plenty of time to philosophize in the minor leagues.

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