2B-3B rotation quietly produces

July 28, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

Four ballplayers filling two starting positions. Such an arrangement usually guarantees that the sound of bickering will soon be heard in the clubhouse.

It hasn't been heard in the Orioles' clubhouse, though, and it probably won't be heard for the rest of the season even though manager Phil Regan continues to alternate four players at second base and third base.

It's a perfect situation for tantrums, whining, meddling ownership and all those other staples of modern day baseball, but, in the Orioles' case, the uncertainty at second and third is marked mostly by the startling sights of reasonableness and even humility this season.

No, the owner hasn't weighed in yet, at least not publicly, but Chris Sabo is back on whatever planet he came from and things are looking peaceful in the infield.

"All I know is you never hear much bickering on pennant-winning teams," said Jeff Manto, who took away Leo Gomez's job at third earlier in the season and now apparently has lost it back to Gomez. "Do I want to play every day? Of course. But this is what happens in baseball. The hot bat gets to play."

Manto had a stunningly hot bat earlier in the season; a long shot even to make the club in the spring after a career in the minors, he had 12 homers and 30 RBIs by June 25. But then he pulled a hamstring before the All-Star break, spent time on the disabled list and didn't hit when he returned. Jeff Huson took his place for a while, and now Gomez, the incumbent, has gotten hot.

Manto lost his job after making only four starts after his stay on the disabled list, which hardly seems fair. But he isn't complaining.

"In the first place, I'm happy for Leo, I really am," he said. "What he went through, with people wondering whether he belonged [on the team], he has shown that he does belong and he can play. That's good. If he continues to hit, I'm sure I won't get another chance [to be the starter]. But I will hit off the bench and spot start. That's OK. You have to stayed focused. We're trying to win a pennant here. It isn't the time to complain."

Not that Manto ever would complain, or so it seems.

"Hey, I had my day in the sun [in May and June]," he said. "I got applauded. It was the best thing to happen in my career. You have to remember, all I wanted here was a utility job. I'm thrilled with what has happened."

It is an accepting attitude that speaks of past defeats and disappointments, of unspeakable horrors inflicted by a game that can be oh-so cruel. Such an attitude comes naturally to a player who had 3,414 at-bats in the minors before this season.

Gomez spent much less time in the minors than Manto, but his up-and-down experience in Baltimore has taught him the same lessons. Anything can happen. If you're patient enough, you usually get a chance. He wasn't happy to lose his job back in May, and the Orioles might have considered releasing him had he continued to be so unproductive. But he never caused a stir. And now he's back in the everyday lineup.

"Something is going to happen sooner or later, so I try to keep a good attitude and be ready," Gomez said. "You never have any control over the lineup anyway."

The season at second base has taken a similar course. Bret Barberie was signed in the off-season to replace Mark McLemore, but he started poorly and lost his job to rookie Manny Alexander, who started 38 of 41 games through July 20.

Barberie never moaned, not once, then returned to the lineup when Alexander slumped and began delivering big hits almost every night. Now Alexander is watching and Barberie is playing.

"It's fine," Alexander said. "I want to play, but everyone wants to play, right? I did a good job when I was in there, but then I was struggling and [Barberie] is a good player, too. He's hitting great now. We'll both play some."

They will, Regan said. "I like to use a lot of players," the manager said. "My feeling is, it doesn't matter who starts. You need 25 guys to win."

What's most important to Regan is that he has squeezed typical production from both positions alternating his hot and cold players. Manto and Gomez combined are hitting .257 with 16 homers and 43 RBIs. Barberie and Alexander combined are hitting .266 with 46 runs scored and 32 RBIs.

When he sits down to fill out his lineup every day, Regan uses a decision-making process at both positions that is as simple as lines in a box score: He who hits, plays.

"This isn't real complicated," Manto said. "Phil plays who is playing well. If I was filling out the lineup, I'd have Leo in there, too."

That means, of course, that Gomez and Barberie are no more entrenched now than Alexander and Manto were earlier. A slump could change the names at either position again.

"It does put some pressure on you," Alexander said. "You go 0-for-4 with someone looking over your shoulder, and you wonder what's going to happen. But that's the way baseball is. And always has been. We all live with it."

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