Berken to the Bigs

Jason Berken has been one of the best International League pitchers since his early-season promotion to the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. Now, he will look to carry that success up to the big leagues. Berken is expected to make his major league debut at home, Tuesday night. ITO spoke with Berken by phone Saturday. Inside, find out what has now made him a big league pitcher.

The Orioles have yet to announce that Jason Berken will start Tuesday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays, but every indication points to him getting the ball.

Berken, a sixth round selection in the 2006 June draft from Clemson University, has quickly risen through the ranks of the organization, including skipping low-A Delmarva, and some of his biggest improvements have come in the past couple of seasons. In Norfolk this year, Berken has gone 2-0 with a 1.05 ERA in 25.2 innings over five starts. He did not allow a run until his fourth outing.

He got off to a rough start in Bowie and said Larry McCall, Baysox pitching coach, had him working on his mechanics, specifically, repeating his delivery. Since then, he has been reunited with former Baysox pitching coach, and current Norfolk Tides pitching coach, Mike Griffin.

"[Griffin] is the main reason why I've had success the past couple of years," Berken said in a phone interview Saturday. "More so than anything, the mental approach to the game is what he's helped me out with. There's a lot of things I haven't really thought about in the past, or things that I'm focusing on now."

As for the success on the mound, after finding a comfortable delivery, Berken attributes his success to upgrading his command.

"My two-seam [fastball] command has been a lot better last year and this year, and I think I've finally got that trust where I can throw it behind in the count," Berken explained. "Early on last year and the year before, if I fell behind 2-0 or 2-1 I'd go straight to the 4-seam fastball just hoping to get a strike."

"The biggest thing has been the command of the two-seam, my command has been a lot better and I finally got the trust in that pitch where I can throw it pretty much anytime I want in any count."

Berken would not take all the credit for success in Norfolk; he did say that it helps when he has a defense as good as the one in Norfolk behind him, allowing him to pitch more to contact. Since his promotion to Triple-A, his strikeout rate of 5.6 K/9 IP has been the lowest of his career, but he has struck out more batters than innings pitched in his last two starts.

"My last start my slider came around a lot better," Berken said. "I actually changed the grip on it a little bit, and I think that last outing was probably the best my slider has been in a long time."

While one start is not enough for a trend, a good slider will go a long way to compliment his arsenal at the next level. Berken can get his 4-seam fastball up into the mid 90's, but he is at his best when he sacrifices a little velocity for early swings and outs with the 2-seamer. Berken has only walked six batters in 25.2 innings for a 2.1 BB/9 IP ratio, the best he has been since his professional debut in Aberdeen in 2006 (1.0 BB/9 IP).

Berken is the second homegrown starter to make it to the big leagues this season, behind Brad Bergesen who was selected in the fourth round of the 2004 June draft. It is no coincidence that two of the better strike-throwers in the system have made it to the majors before others. Baltimore led the league in walks surrendered in 2007 and 2008 by a wide margin both seasons. So far, in 2009, only six teams have walked fewer batters than the Orioles.

The first two Orioles rookie starters, Koji Uehara and Brad Bergesen, earned wins in their debuts, but Berken's will not be easy against Toronto. He is facing the team that leads the American League with a .284 average and is fifth in the majors with 245 runs scored, despite their recent slump. But, now, with the ball in his hand, Berken will be in control.

"The thing that I've learned over the last couple of years is you can't focus on things out of your control," he said. "My first start in Frederick [in 2007], I was so worried about doing well, I had to do this, I had to do that or else I'd get sent down, and it really worked against me."

While Berken talked to ITO before finding out who was going to get the start in Baltimore, his strategy will likely remain the same in Baltimore as it was in Norfolk:

"I'm just looking to go out there and keep throwing the ball well and just keep giving the team a chance to win when I pitch," Berken said.

Tuesday, that team will be the Orioles instead of the Tides.

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