- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

If Richard Stahl’s Class AA debut at Bowie on May 28 seemed like years in the making, it’s because it was.

Stahl was a first-round pick out of high school by Baltimore in 1999. A 6-foot-7 lefty blessed with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and nasty curveball, Stahl was the second of seven first-rounders in that draft for the Orioles. It was a group meant to rejuvenate a franchise that wanted to stop spending big and start developing homegrown talent.

A stress fracture in his back cost Stahl nearly half of the 2000 season, and he felt a pinch in his shoulder during spring training the next year. He pitched through the pain, making six quality starts at Low-A Delmarva and six dominant ones at High-A Frederick.

The pinch shut down Stahl, however, and it turned out to be a bone spur that required shoulder surgery.

?High school was just go out there and throw. I never had any problems like this. Never,? Stahl said. ?After I had that surgery it put a whole new perspective on a lot of things. It made me realize that I might not ever play again. It really helped my work ethic a lot once I came back.?

Stahl missed nearly a year and had more problems after only two starts in 2002 at Delmarva. At first he was looking at more surgery, but a tendinitis diagnosis meant more rehab.

?The biggest mental part for me was going through all the [shoulder] rehab in Florida and then breaking down again after two games,? Stahl said. ?That was about the breaking point for me. You can go through all the rehab, do everything by the book and still not be able to play again. It’s not 100 percent accurate.?

The Orioles collapsed at the end of the 2002 season, losing 32 of 36 games to finish more than 30 games out of first place for the second straight year. Worse, the great draft of 1999 was looking like a bust. Two of the hitters reached Baltimore, only to combine for one home run in 162 at-bats. None of the first-round pitchers had made Class AAA, let alone the majors.

Baltimore’s fortune has turned since then. Those two hitters, Larry Bigbie and Brian Roberts, have blossomed into everyday players. Erik Bedard, a sixth-rounder in 1999, looks like a quality starting pitcher if he can stay healthy. The team is one of the league’s surprises, leading the American League East for most of this season.

And Stahl has been almost completely healthy, with the exception of a groin injury that he deemed a freak accident. He worked as a relief pitcher in 2003 to build arm strength and moved back into a starting role at Frederick last year.

He returned to Frederick to start this year, and the results were better (a 2.77 ERA and 43 strikeouts in nine starts), prompting his move to Bowie.

The electric stuff that made Stahl an elite prospect (ranked No. 1 in the organization in 2002 by Baseball America) hasn’t all come back after the injuries. His fastball doesn’t touch 97 anymore, but it does reach the low 90s. He scrapped the curveball for a slider.

More importantly, for a guy who was dominating Class A hitters before he was of legal drinking age, finally making the jump to Class AA at age 24 is a satisfying payoff after years of rehab work that would have ended many prospects’ careers.

?It’s been a long time coming I guess,? Stahl said. ?It feels really good to be here. It took a lot longer than I thought it would. It’s better late than never, I guess. I’m just thankful the Orioles have been patient with me. I know it’s been a long road, but I’ve been giving it all I’ve got.?

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