Steady Cuellar a master of the screwball

Every time something like this happens, a little piece of me dies, too...

    Mike Cuellar, a crafty left-hander from Cuba whose darting screwball made him a World Series champion and Cy Young winner with the Baltimore Orioles, died Friday. He was 72.

    The Orioles confirmed Cuellar's death, but did not release other details.

    Cuellar made his major league debut in 1959 and bounced around Cincinnati, St. Louis and Houston for almost a decade before a trade brought him to Baltimore. Wearing the black-and-orange bird logo, he blossomed on one of the most imposing pitching staffs in baseball history -- in 1971, he was among the Orioles' four 20-game winners.

    A four-time All-Star, Cuellar was 185-130 overall with a 3.14 ERA. He was voted into the Orioles' Hall of Fame.

    "He sure was an ace," Hall of Fame teammate Brooks Robinson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday night. "He had a way of making good hitters look bad, making them take funny swings."

    Cuellar joined the Orioles for the 1969 season and that year became the first Baltimore pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award, sharing the honor with Detroit's Denny McLain. Cuellar went 23-11 with five shutouts, including a game in which he held Minnesota hitless until Cesar Tovar's soft, leadoff single in the ninth inning.

Cuellar, born in Cuba, got his professional start in 1957 with the Havana Sugar Kings, then the Cincinnati Reds' top farm team. He was still pitching for Havana three years later when Cuba was torn apart by civil war; in July, the Sugar Kings moved to Jersey City and became the Jerseys.

By then Cuellar was 23, but he continued to toil in the minors; after Jersey City, there was Indianapolis and Syracuse and Monterrey and Knoxville and then chunks of three seasons in Jacksonville. He'd been the property of the Reds, then the Tigers and the Indians and the Cardinals, and finally the Astros ... who finally gave Cuellar a real chance to pitch in the majors.

In a pattern that he would repeat almost exactly with the Orioles, Cuellar pitched brilliantly in his first season with Houston, then was merely quite good in his next two seasons. Perhaps the Astros believed that Cuellar had peaked, because they traded him to the Orioles for outfielder Curt Blefary, who was coming off a terrible season (and Blefary would struggle terribly in the remaining four seasons of his career).

Cuellar's Cy Young Award came in his first year with the Orioles. He wouldn't pitch as well again, but in his first six seasons in Baltimore he averaged 21 wins and posted a 2.99 ERA. In the process, Cuellar's screwball -- which he would throw at three different speeds -- became one of the game's more famous pitches. He employed a variety of other offerings, including a fine fastball. But Cuellar's money pitch was the screwball; he and Fernando Valenzuela are the only two notable starters of the last 50 years who relied on the pitch

Here's my favorite bit of writing about Cuellar, from the great Roger Angell: "At its best, Cuellar's attack on the plate reminds one of a master butcher preparing a standing roast of beef -- a sliver excised here, a morsel trimmed off the bottom, two of three superfluous swishes of the knife through the air, and then a final slice off the ribs: Voila!"