A month ago Orioles first base coach Johnny Oates said Craig Worthington rated a clear edge over Leo Gomez. For emphasis, Oates added, "It's not even close."
Yesterday, Oates made it clear he has changed his mind.
Gomez, he said, has narrowed the gap to the point where the third base competition is virtually even. "It's very close," Oates said -- closer than anyone dared imagine this late in the spring.
"I'll tell you what," Oates continued. "If you went through the organization top to bottom there'd probably be an even split. Frank might have to be the one to pick, 'Which one do I want?' "
Frank, of course, is Frank Robinson, and he confirmed yesterday that the Worthington-Gomez duel has forced his most difficult spring training decision in three years as Orioles manager.
Informed of Oates' assessment, Robinson said, "I would say yes, it's that close." So close that both can be on the Opening Day roster? That's stretching it, but Robinson no longer rules out the idea.
The season, lest we forget, opens in three days.
Baseball people claim this is the best type of problem -- two players who prove deserving of the same job. That's true, as long as the issue resolves. This one hasn't, and now the Orioles face a genuine impasse.
Eventually the club must choose one and trade the other, but right now neither has strong market value. That might change, but only if the Orioles make the correct decision and both players survive with their egos intact.
Worthington, after two years in the majors, would be especially shattered by a demotion. If the rookie Gomez then proved a bust, the Orioles would be left with two players with fragile psyches -- the worst possible outcome.
Thus, the most likely scenario from the start has been Worthington in Baltimore and Gomez in Rochester. The problem is, Gomez has shown he clearly belongs in the majors after batting .277 with 26 homers and 97 RBIs last year at Triple A.
Orioles history offers precedent for such demotions -- Bobby Grich and Don Baylor in 1972, and more relevant, Doug DeCinces in 1975. That doesn't make the decision any easier. Oates said it's "one of the toughest I've been involved with."
"Let's just say both of them have won a job," Oates said. "I wouldn't want to be the guy to call Gomez in and tell him he's going back to Triple A. Both guys played well enough to be in the big leagues Opening Day."
Gomez, 24, is batting .345 this spring with three homers and nine RBIs. He also has eased doubts about his fielding, making three errors to Worthington's two. "In one or two games, he made some careless errors," Robinson said. "Other than that, he's been outstanding."
But Worthington, who turns 26 on April 17, has been just as good -- under twice as much pressure. He's batting .321 coming off a bad year, and last night he hit his second homer in the Orioles' 3-2 victory over the Yankees, increasing his team-high RBI total to 17.
Oates said Gomez runs better than Worthington and would hit both more home runs and for a higher average. But he added that Worthington still has better defensive instincts and could match Gomez in RBIs.
There's your impasse.
Keeping both -- the easiest solution -- is unrealistic for two reasons. One, it would cost the Orioles another lefthanded hitter (Worthington and Gomez both swing from the right side). Two, it would force one of them to the bench.
"I just don't see how I can get both enough playing time," Robinson said. "They've both played so well because they've played. I don't think you can play one guy one day and one guy the next."
Besides, even if Robinson wants to create a roster spot, he won't have much room to maneuver -- and that's assuming he keeps just nine pitchers, with Ben McDonald starting the season on the 15-day disabled list.
As it stands, the Orioles figure to open with no more than six lefthanded hitters: Ernie Whitt, Sam Horn, Brady Anderson and Joe Orsulak, plus switch-hitters Juan Bell and David Segui. Orsulak is the only indispensable member of that group.
A case can be made for purging any of the others -- even Horn, who hasn't hit a homer since crushing two in the first three exhibitions. That would create more DH at-bats, but eliminate the only power threat from the left side.
Anderson, meanwhile, will be needed as a late-inning replacement for Randy Milligan in left, and Whitt could prove valuable as the only lefthanded-hitting catcher. Then again, Whitt, 38, is a non-roster player. Hello, Leo?
It's Robinson's choice.
Perhaps his most difficult yet.