VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The new-look Baltimore Orioles batting order showered baseballs all over Holman Stadium yesterday, fulfilling for a day at least the club's vastly increased run-production potential.
But yesterday's 17-9 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers featured an individual performance that could make the Orioles lineup more dangerous than anyone might have expected.
Craig Worthington seemed to be on his way out of town a few weeks ago, but he appears to have re-established himself as the starting third baseman by re-establishing himself at the plate.
He hit a three-run home run off Fernando Valenzuela in his first at-bat yesterday and went on to deliver three hits and four RBI in one of the club's biggest offensive performances in years.
Worthington arrived at spring training as the incumbent at third base, but the presence of promising Leo Gomez put him face-to-face with the real possibility of losing the job. His struggles in 1990 made him vulnerable in 1991, but he seems to have firmed his place in the lineup.
"I knew what was going on," he said. "I knew there was a guy that was hungry and wanted my position. But I don't look at the competition at all. AllI wanted to do was come in and establish myself as a major-league-caliber player. The rest will take care of itself."
He seems to have done that. With the three hits yesterday, Worthington raised his average to .324. Gomez has held his own at the plate (.286), but he'll have to do a lot more than that to unseat a clearly more dependable defensive player.
"I don't think anyone could overwhelm me hitting in spring training," manager Frank Robinson said. "He [Gomez] has to show me he can do the job defensively."
Though Gomez has not disqualified himself with his defensive play, it seems logical to assume that if Worthington hits, Worthington will play and Gomez will go back to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings to wait for another chance.
But no one will come right out and say that. Robinson says the decision will go right down to Opening Day. Worthington insists he is taking nothing for granted, especially after he was accused of taking too much for granted last season.
He did seem a bit nonchalant after his 70-RBI season in 1989. He showed up for spring training a few days late and looked a lot like a guy who thought he had the baseball world in his pocket.
"I hope people don't see me as being a dog," he said. "I'm loose. That's my character. I'm not a go-go, intense guy. I can't change that. I have to let my actions speak for myself."
They didn't speak very loudly last season. He went from being named American League Rookie of the Year in 1989 to being the comedown player of the year in 1990. He looked so lost that the Orioles started looking to Gomez as the future at third base.
"I know it sounds like a cop-out,but the lockout hurt me," Worthington said. "I'm a slow starter. I started slow this year, too, but I've had time to get things moving in the right direction. Now, I just want to carry it into the season."
True enough, it appeared Gomez was going to win the job a week into the exhibition season. But he has struggled at third and has not done enough at the plate to make up for it. Worthington's superior defensive ability is well-known, though he not without weaknesses, either. He made 18 errors last year.
"I'm not worrying about the defensive end of it," he said. "I'm working at it, but I'm not worrying about it. I have to worry about doing the right things at the plate. I think I'm doing the right things now.
"I'm learning a lot about myself. I know I can't try to hit the ball out of the ballpark. If I hit line drives, the home runs will come. Last year, I was trying to hit 0-2 pitches out of the park. I think I've matured as a hitter just since I've been down here."
Hitting coach Tom McCraw agrees. Worthington went out and tried to improve on his rookie season, but he ended up proving to be very vulnerable at the plate. The numbers -- .226 batting average, eight home runs, 44 RBI -- paint an accurate picture of a frustrating season.
"He's not jumping at the ball like he used to," McCraw said. "He's not worried about hitting home runs. He's trying to be a good hitter. He proved in 1989 that he can drive in big runs. He needs to go back to the things that worked for him. It's a learning process.
"He looks like he has made the proper adjustments. If he has, he's going to be a real good hitter, and that makes our lineup even tougher."