Orioles' Smith, Gomez play baseball, the waiting game Pitcher, infielder seem AAA-bound

April 02, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The final week of spring training means different things to different players. The proven veterans bTC are beginning to complain about the tedium. The unproven rookies are just thankful they're still around. Then there are the three or four guys who are on the bubble, and for them it is a tense week indeed.

Pitcher Roy Smith knows all about it. Third baseman Leo Gomez is just realizing it. The two shared the stage in the Baltimore Orioles' 7-6 Grapefruit League loss to the Montreal Expos at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium yesterday, and there is every chance they will share a locker room in Rochester, N.Y.

Smith, who was inserted into yesterday's starting slot after the Orioles juggled the rotation to put Jeff Ballard in line for his Opening Day start against the Chicago White Sox on Monday, gave up six runs in the first two innings before settling down through the fifth.

Gomez, who is fighting to unseat incumbent third baseman Craig Worthington, fared better. He had three hits, including his third home run of the spring, to raise his exhibition batting average to .352.

Manager Frank Robinson is not saying anything about the makeup of the Opening Day roster, but yesterday's performances aside, it appears that Smith and Gomez are headed in the same direction.

"It's nervous time," Gomez said, "but all you can do is try to work even harder. This is it. I'm very happy with the way I'm doing. I'm very happy they gave me a chance to play. But the decision is up to the manager. Whatever he says, I go from there."

Robinson said from the beginning that Gomez would get a legitimate chance to win regular playing time at third base, but he also said that Gomez would have to play Worthington out of the job. Gomez has done everything but.

Worthington has risen to the challenge, batting .300 and leading the Orioles with 13 RBI. He also has played steadier defense, which might be the pivotal factor in the decision.

Who will stay and who will go? Robinson is not saying, and he probably won't until hours before Sunday's deadline for submitting the regular-season roster, but he repeated yesterday that he will not keep Gomez and Worthington at the major-league level.

That can mean one of only two things: Gomez is going back to the minor leagues or Worthington is about to be traded. The Gomez/Rochester scenario seems likely.

"They are making it tough on me," Robinson said, "and that's what you like to see."

Gomez was quoted during the off- season as saying that the club should trade whoever fails to win the job, but he has been careful with his words since he arrived at training camp. He wants to play, but he also wants to stay, and seems willing to accept whatever the team decides.

"I'm having fun," he said. "I'm hitting .350, and I'm going to try and hit .450. It's fun when you go out there and have a 3-for-4 day. The hard thing is when you go 0-for-4.

"I have no idea what's going to happen. I'm just working hard. It's up to the manager to decide. I'll just work right to the last second."

The situation is a little different for Smith, who came to camp as a non-roster invitee after spending all or part of the previous seven seasons at the major-league level. He didn't have any reason to expect that a major-league job was waiting for him, but he had pitched well until yesterday.

In five spring relief appearances, he had given up one earned run in9 2/3 innings (0.93 ERA), but he gave up a pair of home runs in the early innings to Expos outfielder Larry Walker and first baseman Andres Galarraga.

"I just wasn't sharp early," Smith said. "I left some pitches up early and I need work, but at least I got better rather than worse. I was having a decent spring up until now.

"When you're in the position I'm in, you have to get people out. You can't afford to go out there and just work on things. But I needed to have a day like this -- as far as getting out there for an extended period. Not that I wanted to do bad, but I needed it."

Smith is a realist. He knew what he was getting into when he agreed to sign a Rochester contract. He understands that he likely will be playing under that contract for at least part of the 1991 season. The Orioles have at least six likelier candidates for the major-league starting rotation and one of those will end up with one of the long-relief jobs in the bullpen.

"I figure one way or the other, I'll be in the picture at the end," Smith said. "I can help this team. There is no doubt about it in my mind."

He has made it clear that he will willingly go to Class AAA to wait for a chance. His worst fear is not a minor-league assignment; what he fears is no assignment at all.

"I didn't want to come to a team in a situation where I could get released at the end of spring training," Smith said. "That's professional suicide. But I signed a Rochester contract, and that should work to my advantage. They don't have to worry about paying me a bunch of money if they keep me past a certain point."

Smith doesn't want to give the wrong impression. He's not eager to go back to the minor leagues. He just knows the score.

"I've done it before," he said. "You've got to look at the big picture. A month or a couple of weeks or whatever it takes is nothing when you look back at it. Sometimes you have to suck it up and do what you have to do. Look at my track record. Nothing says I can't pitch here."

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