SARASOTA, Fla. -- When Leo Gomez arrived in the big leagues last September, he broke in with a characteristic performance: two hits and a walk in four plate appearances -- and two errors in the field.
"I felt comfortable at home plate," he said yesterday. "But I was very nervous on defense. It was my first game, and a lot of guys have been that way in their first game."
"No matter how well you did at Triple-A, you've got to be concerned about whether you can hit Jack Morris or whether you fit next to Cal Ripken," said Baltimore Orioles coach Tom McCraw.
"You still have that little bit of doubt, and some guys are just plain scared."
But Gomez, a two-time Orioles organization player of the year, settled down after making two more errors in his second game and finished the season 7-for-24 at the plate to bat .231 in 12 games.
Now, he is mounting a challenge to holdover third baseman Craig Worthington, who is coming off a poor offensive year but is much better defensively.
Last night in an 8-7 loss to the Chicago White Sox, the rookie enhanced his cause with a grand slam off Wayne Edwards in the fifth inning. He had two other hits and took over the club RBI lead with six.
Gomez appeared to throw down the gauntlet last month at the Caribbean World Series in Miami when USA Today quoted him as saying: "If they don't trade Craig Worthington, I want them to trade me. Somebody has to get out of there."
But he later recanted, and the competition has been reduced to a battle on the field.
"I don't remember saying that," Gomez said. "I understand the guy changed a line in the paper, and I talked to Doug Melvin [the club's assistant general manager] about it. Baltimore has two good third basemen. I'm happy for both of us."
Manager Frank Robinson is reserving judgment on who will start Opening Day.
"I wouldn't say the position is up for grabs," Robinson said. "The job is Worthy's to keep, but it's not set. We'll wait until everybody starts breaking off curveballs and see what happens."
Gomez knows what his mission is.
"Work on my defense," he said. "If I'm not playing, I take ground balls for 20 to 25 minutes, moving from side to side. I know the job is right there; third base is wide-open. But whatever Frank says goes."
Robinson complimented Gomez's defense and said he is "not concerned" about the need for improvement.
"Wade Boggs came up with a reputation as being bad defensively, but now he's one of the better ones. It just proves if you work at it, you can improve," he said.
Gomez has dropped 10 pounds, to 207, to improve his mobility, and said that has helped.
"I can go get the ball from both sides now and go in on the slow ground ball. I try to catch everything," he said.
His bat still is healthy after a Puerto Rican League season in which he hit eight homers and knocked in 31 runs, putting him in the league's top five in both categories.
"I'll be happy just to stay in the big leagues," said the native of Puerto Rico. "If I start, I don't care. But wherever I go, I'll do my job, put up the numbers again and let the managers and coaches do their job."
Gomez wants to stay in the Oriole organization, which signed him as an undrafted free agent. He said that when he reaches the majors, he doesn't want to return to the minors.
"I don't want to jump up and down," he said. "So far, I like the way my career has gone year to year. Soon, I'll be seeing a lot of guys I know from Triple-A, and that will help."