FORT MYERS, Fla. — Zach Clark's professional baseball career has had its share of bumps and turns, just like those long bus trips through the minor leagues as he clutched the dream of one day breaking into the big leagues.
"A lot of ups and downs," Clark, a UMBC product, said with smile Thursday. "More than you'd really think. It's been a journey."
After seven years toiling in the minors, the 29-year-old right-hander finally has the feeling that reaching the majors in within grasp. After an eye-opening season that finished at Triple-A Norfolk, Clark was added to the Orioles' 40-man roster in late October. That also led to Clark's first opportunity to compete in major league spring training camp.
"It was the best day I've had in baseball," Clark said of the day he was told he was being added to the 40-man roster. "It was awesome. It means that they view me as someone who can contribute in the big leagues. That's my goal, to play there, so it was an awesome day."
This spring, most eyes are focused on the team's top pitching prospects — 20-year-old Dylan Bundy and 22-year-old Kevin Gausman — both of whom could arrive in the majors by the end of the season.
But there's something about Clark — about his taking the hard road — that also intrigues the Orioles.
"He's a baseball player," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's got an idea and he's got a plan. … Sometimes it takes a while for guys to figure it out. After seeing him, I'm glad we put him on the roster."
Coming out of UMBC, Clark was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2006. He put up solid numbers and reached Double-A Bowie two years later, but then dealt with arm fatigue — he's had two surgeries on his right shoulder — that stunted his progress.
"I was like 'Yes, I'm in Double-A, I'm going to maybe back up some big league games in the end of the year,'" said Clark, a Delaware native who went to high school in Newark. "And then I get hurt. And then I had to start all over again.
"It wasn't even a big injury. ... I got injured in spring training and made the team and didn't even throw an inning and went back to Florida and didn't really know what was wrong. It was just trying to get back from that."
Last season, Clark finally felt healthy and confident. He began the spring on a Double-A field at the Orioles' minor league camp at Twin Lakes Park. He started the season at Bowie and was named an Eastern League All-Star. He earned a promotion to Triple-A Norfok and won his only two starts there before being shuttled back to Bowie.
Clark returned to Norfolk for good in early August, and in eight appearances he went 5-2 with a 1.75 ERA. He allowed two runs or fewer in six of his seven starts in Triple-A, capped by a complete-game shutout in his final start of the season Aug. 31.
That set the tone for this spring. While Clark realizes he's a longshot to make the Orioles out of camp, he's becoming confident that he belongs.
"I feel like I'm more ready than I've ever been for spring, just because I didn't know what to expect so I wanted to be more ready than less ready," he said. "It's been awesome. I'm just trying to enjoy every second I'm here and learn as much as I can from everybody."
In Thursday's 7-1 Grapefruit League loss to the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium, Clark showed his fight in two innings of relief work. After issuing a walk to Brian Dozier to open the sixth inning, he allowed a double to Clete Thomas and a sacrifice fly to Eduardo Escobar.
But after that, Clark induced a fly ball out to center from Danny Lehmann and doubled up Thomas when he threw to second and it was ruled that Thomas tagged to third base too early. He then retired the side in order in the seventh.
In four innings of work this spring, Clark has allowed just one run and three hits.
His fastball velocity had improved over the past season, into the low 90s, but he relies on a deceptive delivery and keeping his sinker low in the strike zone.
"When he's down in the zone you can tell he's got a plan," Showalter said. "He's doing [well] at executing his pitches. He's got a good delivery. A lot of things work in his favor."
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