After up year, Martinez experiences downside of Oriole life

May 12, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

He is yet to become the subject of one of those "Whatever Happened To?" stories. No one has compared him to some one-season flashes, or even half-season flashes, in recent Orioles' history.

But the memorable summer of 1991 has turned into a forgettable spring of 1992 for Orioles outfielder Chito Martinez. In the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately world of major-league baseball, Martinez is merely struggling to survive.

It is an ongoing battle and, unlike the Orioles, he is not winning.

"To me, the most important thing is that we're winning," Martinez was saying in the quiet of the Orioles' clubhouse Sunday morning. "It's difficult. Of course, I'd like to be in there more, but there's no sense getting down."

Later that day, Martinez made his sixth start -- subbing for Sam Horn as the Orioles' designated hitter -- in a 5-2 defeat to the Chicago White Sox. He went 0-for-3, and saw his average tumble to .080 (2-for-25) going into tonight's game in Texas.

The disastrous start to Martinez's second season with the Orioles is in stark contrast to the way he ended his first: the final home run at Memorial Stadium, his 13th in 67 games, to go along with 33 RBIs and a solid .269 batting average.

"I enjoyed last year, being that it was my first year in the big leagues and doing as well as I did," said Martinez, 26. "When I got called up, I was hitting the ball well [in Rochester] and my swing was in a groove."

Said Orioles third-base coach Greg Biagini, who managed Martinez in Rochester last season, "When he came up, he had hit 20 home runs in a month and a half and he just continued to put up some incredible numbers here."

The most important number involving Martinez this season has been three. That's the number of players manager Johnny Oates has been platooning in rightfield. Joe Orsulak has played a majority of the games, with Martinez and the recently demoted Luis Mercedes getting the rest.

"It's a different role than the one I expected," said Martinez, who has fewer at-bats than any Orioles except the oft-injured Glenn Davis and backup catcher Jeff Tackett. "It's something that I'm not used to. I'm working hard to get better.

"It's hard to keep a good swing when you're not playing. I don't care how much time you spend in the [batting] cage or hitting off a tee, it's a totally different situation when you're facing a pitcher. I don't have my swing right now."

It is doubtful that Martinez will get his swing back any time soon. With Davis off the disabled list, first basemen David Segui probably will be moved back to the outfield. And with Orsulak starting to hit, that will leave Martinez taking most of his cuts in batting practice.

"In fairness to him, he hasn't had a lot of opportunity to play," said Oates. "He isn't the first one to be in this position. But we've talked about it. I've tried to find some spots to play him. You have to keep everybody ready. He realizes that it's part of the game."

Part of the problem stems from the type of hitter Martinez is. Because of his build -- he's 5 feet 10 and 182 pounds -- Martinez gets most of his home run power through precision rather than pure strength. When working, his swing is short, sweet and quick.

"I rely on bat speed to give me my strength," said Martinez. "When you play once a week or once in a while, you tend to lose a lot of bat speed. Personally, when I play every day, there's not a guy up here who can blow a fastball by me. I'm not feeling confident like that now."

Said Biagini, "I think the difficulty comes when you're a young HTC player and you're not used to sitting. When you're not getting the playing time, it's a learning experience. You have to prepare yourself every day, to stay ready for that one at-bat late in the game."

Martinez might figure he would be in the lineup tonight, since he had led the Orioles against Texas last season with 12 hits in 22 at-bats (.545), three homers and seven RBIs. The way things have gone, Martinez likely will be back on the bench.

But he has not given up hope that a spring to forget will turn into another memorable summer. He doesn't think he will turn into another one-season flash -- Jim Traber, Larry Sheets, Mike Young take your pick. Hero one moment, gone the next.

"It's a long season," said Martinez, whose "hitting" highlight thus far has been drawing three bases-loaded walks. "You never know what's going to happen."

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