Bedard's way ahead of curve

BOB ELLIOTT

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- The owner of one of the five best curveballs in the American League did not develop, tinker and improve the pitch on a sun-drenched, pristine field.

Nor was it at an indoor workout facility or on a mound in his back yard.

Erik Bedard's curve was improved inside a barn on his brother Mark's chicken farm in Sarsfield. Sarsfield, as you should know, is down the road from Bedard's hometown of Navan (pop. 1,400), outside of Ottawa.

''My brother has 45,000 chickens in each of his two barns,'' Bedard said yesterday in the Orioles' clubhouse.

PETA should know that not one chicken wing or leg was injured during the creation, improvement and re-formation of this self-taught pitch.

''The chickens aren't really where we throw, we put up a board, too, in case a pitch gets away,'' said Bedard, whose batterymate is Robert Laplante. ''My curve (in 2006) was a lot better than the year before. I changed the grip. Now I feel more comfortable.''

Former Oakland ace Barry Zito, Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox and Mike Mussina of the New York Yankees were voted as having the best curve in the AL, with Bedard close behind. Now Zito has switched leagues.

Likely the Orioles' opening day starter April 2 against the Minnesota Twins, Bedard made his spring debut Friday. He was in mid-season form in his two innings against the Florida Marlins.

The Marlins went quickly. Six up, six down, Bedard needing only 20 pitches -- 16 strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to five of the six batters he faced.

Growing up on the edge of the Montreal Expos' former fiefdom, he followed the Blue Jays and seldom went to Olympic Stadium.

His favourite player -- and who would have guessed this from a lefty -- was Pat Hentgen, the Jays' former Cy Young award winner. Hentgen used his right arm, but Bedard shares Hentgen's bulldog approach.

''I don't know whether it's this year or next,'' an AL scout said the other day, ''but sometime down the road, with his curve, that Bedard kid has a Cy Young in his future.''

Who knew the best arm with Orioles and their rich pitching tradition would be the best coach from the Montpetit shinny league, which plays hockey each Sunday at the University of Ottawa.

''We choose sides, play a best-of-three series,'' Bedard explained. ''If I miss a week, guys will say they lost because I wasn't there.''

He laughed when asked if he employed the left-wing lock.

''This is the first season I haven't played,'' the southpaw said. ''I was going to, but decided I didn't want to risk injury.''

Wise move. Three days before their scheduled salary arbitration hearing, Baltimore signed its ace to a one-year, $3.4 million US contract Feb. 18.

STARTED IN ORLEANS

His baseball story is not typical of an ace. He began pitching in the Orleans Little League, joined coach Dick Dow of the Nepean Red Sox, and went to Norwalk (Conn.) Community Technical College, which won the NCAA Division III World Series in Batavia, N.Y., in 1998 as his team went 45-3 over the regular season.

''The next season we went 50-0 over the regular season, but lost in the playoff,'' Bedard remembered.

Not much has changed at home, he says. He still goes with his buddies to the town restaurant.

''Everyone stops by, says congratulations on the season or wishes me luck,'' Bedard says. ''The name of the restaurant? The Navan Restaurant.''

Bedard has Canadian company in the Birds' camp -- fellow lefty Adam Loewen, of Surrey, B.C., who is also in the rotation; outfielder Adam Stern, of Port Stanley, sidelined for a few days with a right oblique strain; and minor-league reliever Steve Green of Longeuil, Que., who recorded the save against Team USA last March 8 in the World Baseball Classic.

Last night, all four did what many Canadians would do on a warm Florida night -- walk into an ice palace to see the Florida Panthers play host to the Tampa Bay Lightening.

Bedard would be watching -- not coaching -- this one.


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