07/14/2003 4:50 PM ET
Loaiza excited about All-Star start
Veteran has elevated his game to new heights
CHICAGO -- The words came at Esteban Loaiza with the force of a 95-mph fastball moving toward his head. But there was never an option to get out of the way for the veteran right-hander.
This commentary wasn't meant to hurt Loaiza. But it struck a chord, direct messages processed until they could be answered during the 2003 season.
"I heard it from a lot of the veterans I played with on my past teams," Loaiza said. "With my talent, they said I should be winning 15 to 17 games per season."
Prior to this season, Loaiza never won more than 11 games. There were two winning seasons from the previous seven, a 6-5 record with Pittsburgh in 1997 and a 9-5 record with Texas in 1999.
Loaiza even held down the No. 1 spot in the Toronto starting rotation two years ago. But nothing came close to predicting the success achieved in 2003 by the 31-year-old.
Coming to Spring Training in Tucson as a non-roster invitee, without a guaranteed contract, Loaiza has elevated his game from the No. 5 starter breaking camp, to an 11-game winner on June 24 to a first-time All-Star. The crowning moment came Monday.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who also is managing the American League, named Loaiza the starting pitcher for Tuesday's 74th All-Star Game, played in front of Loaiza's home faithful at U.S. Cellular Field. The message was delivered to Loaiza upon checking into his hotel Sunday afternoon, sending him into a state of shock and then baseball euphoria.
"A woman associated with baseball told me I was the starter, and I said, 'excuse me?'" said an ecstatic Loaiza, talking after Monday's All-Star Game press conference at the Westin Hotel in downtown Chicago. "My mouth dropped. I didn't know what to say.
"I was all pumped up, and then I brought all my family together to tell them. I could not imagine this was going to happen."
Following the family get together, Loaiza mentioned that cousins and other relatives started calling other family members in Mexico to share the good news -- using his cell phone. But with the year Loaiza currently is crafting, he should be in good shape to pay even the largest of bills.
Loaiza carries an 11-5 record into the break with an American League best 2.21 earned run average. He has allowed a mere 107 hits over 130 1/3 innings, walking 31 and striking out 106, while leading the league with 16 quality starts.
Prior to this season, Loaiza's best ERA was 4.13 with Pittsburgh in 1997. During a rough 2002 season with Toronto, in which Loaiza finished 9-10 with a 5.71 ERA, he began to fool around with a cut fastball.
When he joined the White Sox during Spring Training, Loaiza worked that cutter into his repertoire and started changing speeds more. Bartolo Colon was the much ballyhooed addition to the pitching staff when camp began, but almost five months later, it's the new-and-improved Loaiza throwing the first pitch in Tuesday's Midsummer's Classic.
"This has been an awesome season for him," said White Sox manager Jerry Manuel of Loaiza. "He has been lights out from day one. We were waiting for something to happen to reverse that. But he has had one little bump in the road and one other start where he was a little tight.
"Other than that, like I said, he's been lights out. He's had that No. 1 status before, but now he has matured and he understands what it means to be the top guy. With the addition of extra pitches, the better use of his change up and cutter and his knowledge of baseball and the fact that he's healthy, Loaiza's ready to break loose at the right time."
During the press conference, Scioscia mentioned that while teams are always competing hard for victories, it's good to see a success story such as Loaiza come to fruition. Loaiza plans on throwing two innings, maybe three, against the National League.
But Scioscia figures the White Sox hurler could go even further into the game.
"You look at a pitcher like Loaiza, who is efficient on pitch counts," Scioscia said. "If he's pitching well in the third inning, we might use him for a fourth. It depends on how he feels and how many pitches he has thrown.
"We will look for feedback. We won't put anybody at risk."
The All-Star Game starters take another interesting twist. San Francisco's Jason Schmidt, getting the call for the National League, was Loaiza's teammate with Pittsburgh during the 1996 and 1997 seasons.
Schmidt saw the potential in Loaiza seven years ago, the true make-up of a 15- or maybe even 20-game winner. It just took Loaiza some time to see it himself.
"Esteban was as good as anyone back then," Schmidt said of Loaiza. "It's a matter of putting it all together. He had a great arm, great change and a great slider. We were all a little inconsistent, at that point."
Loaiza and Schmidt spoke together in the outfield at U.S. Cellular when the Giants and White Sox battled during Interleague play in the second week of June. The talked about watching each other's success and encouraged the other one to continue pushing for even greater success.
Now, they are both front and center at the All-Star Game. It's an achievement for Loaiza, not a destination, as he shoots to reach 20 victories during the second half of the season. It also was a great relief.
"Everybody was telling me in Cleveland and Detroit that I was going to start," Loaiza said. "My teammates said I was going to start, but I still hadn't heard anything. I went up to Jerry a couple of times, but he didn't know anything.
"It was nice for me to finally hear the news because I never thought I would be here. This has been a long story for me, but all my hard work is paying off."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com