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Oakland’s Other Texan : Baseball: Dressendorfer, overshadowed by Van Poppel, cracked the A’s starting rotation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kirk Dressendorfer began this spring as another prospect out of the state of Texas, where power pitchers seem to grow like cotton.

The Oakland rookie from Texas most talked about was Todd Van Poppel, fresh out of high school.

Dressendorfer wasn’t a famous schoolboy, just a 34th-round draft pick from Pearland High School who decided to go on to the University of Texas, where the right-hander won 45 games in three seasons, and was a first-team All-American in every one of them.

The Athletics penciled him in for double A, and handed him jersey No. 60, with the understanding that he needn’t bother getting used to it.

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By the early days of April, Dressendorfer had a 3-1 record and a 1.33 earned-run average. The A’s found him a more suitable jersey, No. 22--which also happens to be his age--and named him the fifth starter on one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

“He was very much an outside shot at winning a spot in the rotation,” said Dave Duncan, Oakland’s pitching coach. “Curt Young, Todd Burns, Eric Show, Reggie Harris were all guys who were going to get legitimate shots.

“Dressendorfer is the type of guy who every time he pitched, got somebody’s attention. We’d watch him closer, and closer, and as it turned out he was the best guy for the job.”

In his first major league start, Dressendorfer earned a victory, giving up two runs on four hits in 5 2/3 innings in the A’s 4-2 victory Saturday over Seattle. He will get his second start tonight, against the Angels in the final game of the A’s four-game series at Anaheim Stadium.

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Show earned the other open spot in the rotation, and Dressendorfer joined a rotation that included three 34-year-olds and a 31-year-old, not to mention two of the top pitchers in the game in Dave Stewart, who has four consecutive 20-win seasons, and Bob Welch, who won 27 games and the American League Cy Young award last season.

It is not the most inconspicuous place to break into the big leagues.

“It’s got its advantages and disadvantages,” Dressendorfer said. “It’s good that I have such a good team behind me, defensively and offensively. Sometimes probably there’s more pressure. I can’t go out and count a game as a learning experience, because we’re contenders. A lot of guys starting out with a ballclub can chalk a game up as a learning experience.

“The way I look at it, it’s a lot like my freshman year in college. I’m just going to go do my job. It’s not like I’m Bob Welch or Dave Stewart, expected to win 20 games.”

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When Show went on the disabled list with an infected thumb, Dressendorfer gained the company of another rookie, Joe Slusarski, who started against the Angels Tuesday but was not involved in the decision in the A’s victory.

Some observers look at the young talent making its way onto the A’s staff and marvel at the organization’s depth.

“They’ve got legitimate stuff, and real good composure,” said Manager Tony La Russa. “It’s kind of exciting to watch them deal with this opportunity.”

Others look at a team that has five rookie pitchers on its staff now--including Steve Chitren, Dana Allison and John Briscoe, who was called up Wednesday when Burns went on the disabled list--and see vulnerability.

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“If somebody were to say that to me, I’d say they’d be in a sense questioning my judgment, Tony La Russa’s judgment and the general manager’s judgment,” Duncan said. “Our No. 1 priority is to win the division. We’re not in the business of developing guys at the major league level. We feel those guys are not in any way, shape or form an Achilles’ heel for us. We feel like they’re solid.”

Not many people could tell if Dressendorfer was solid last year. About mid-April, he started having pain in his throwing shoulder. The A’s drafted him with a supplemental first-round pick, taking him 36th overall--22 picks behind Van Poppel--and counted on Dressendorfer to get healthy. Dressendorfer took time off from June to August, pitching 19 1/3 innings over seven games for class-A Southern Oregon.

“It was a scary feeling, not being able to throw the ball,” Dressendorfer said. “I’d never had that kind of arm trouble.”

After the spring Dressendorfer had, whatever gamble Oakland took appears to have been worth it. Still, Dressendorfer’s rookie season has yet to unfold.

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The A’s say he is not a short-term experiment, vulnerable to losing his position with a bad outing or two.

“He’s made our club as the fifth starter,” Duncan said. “Right now our intention is to give him the ball every time the fifth starter is scheduled to pitch.”

What that means is that Dressendorfer probably won’t pitch every fifth day, because the A’s will be likely to skip him on occasion to take advantage of off days and keep Stewart on an ideal schedule, with as many starts as is reasonable.

“At (Dressendorfer’s) age, you don’t want him to start 35 games and pitch 240 innings,” Duncan said. “I don’t think that would be in his best interests. Ideally, he’ll probably get 25-28 starts.”

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Still, Duncan knows working with young pitchers can be delicate business. “With veterans you know what they know, and you give them credit for knowing all the things they have to deal with. With young guys, you try not to take anything for granted. You try, in a sense, to say more than you think you need to, not less.

“There’s a lot of excitement surrounding you guys. They do attract a lot of attention. You can’t get caught up in all those things that are new.”

Dressendorfer grew up like just about any Texas boy does anymore, trying to copy Nolan Ryan.

“I lived 10 miles from where he lives,” Dressendorfer said. “Whoever was young and good around there got compared to Ryan.”

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Disappointed at how low he was drafted out of high school, Dressendorfer went to Texas, the school that produced Roger Clemens and Calvin Schiraldi.

“We’ve got a little over 10 people in the big leagues, and only two or three are position players,” Dressendorfer said. “Pitching is a big part of why Texas has been successful. That helps a lot in recruiting.”

Dressendorfer thrived there, compiling a 2.56 career earned-run average, and getting a few private lessons from Clemens. In 429 2/3 innings, he struck out 462.

Last season, Cal State Fullerton was one of the few teams to get the better of him, defeating Texas in the NCAA Central Regional last May.

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Quickly enough, Dressendorfer left the college players and the minor leaguers behind. He’s a rookie again, and hitters try to make sure he knows it.

“They’re just wanting to throw your concentration off,” he said. “They’ve been around long enough to know a lot of ways to rattle you. They step in and out a few times, look at you, do stuff like that. I started against the Cubs in Phoenix, and they did a lot of hit-and-running, just trying to get you rattled, trying to get you to think about anything other than what you’re supposed to be thinking.”

Before his first start, Dressendorfer said, he had plenty of time to anticipate.

“That game went through my mind so many times, day after day,” he said. “You go through a game in your mind, and it goes pretty well for you. When you get out there, you’ve got to make adjustments.”

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Soon enough, he knows, the day will come when the adjustments don’t come--the day he gets hit hard.

“Hey, it’s inevitable,” he said. “There hasn’t been one pitcher alive who’s had all good days. That’s not possible.”


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