Hammonds hits away doubts Healthy and on tear, he's now O's regular

March 28, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds was not in the Orioles' starting lineup for yesterday's exhibition game against the New York Mets, which under different circumstances might have prompted speculation about his uncertain physical status.

Not anymore. Hammonds did not start because he has little left to prove this spring. It took him awhile to get up to speed, but he has been so impressive during the final weeks of the exhibition season that manager Davey Johnson specifically wrote him out of the lineup yesterday to give veteran Mike Devereaux more playing time before the team heads north tomorrow.

"He probably thinks that there's something wrong because he's not in the lineup," Johnson said, "but he's doing so well that I wanted to give somebody else a chance. He's healthy and he's expressing his talent. That's a wonderful thing to see."

Hammonds has been particularly expressive at the plate, where he's batting .415 in exhibition play and has been on a major tear the past two weeks. In the last seven games games, including a brief appearance in the Orioles' 8-3 victory over the Mets yesterday, he is 10-for-18 (.555) with three doubles, a home run and three RBI.

"Jeffrey has been outstanding," Johnson said. "He did come in a little behind, but he's done everything I could ask of him."

No one would say it early on, but club officials had to wonder what Hammonds would have to offer after struggling for three years to overcome a variety of injuries. He was the club's top draft choice in 1992 -- and gave a glimpse of his vast talent during a brief stay in the majors the following year -- but spent last season hobbling around with a bulky leg brace, perhaps never to regain the tremendous foot speed that made him one of the most prized college players of the decade.

The leg brace is gone and with it some of the uncertainty about the condition of his recon- structed right knee, but those doubts lingered into this spring, until Hammonds erased them with a strong all-around performance that has secured his place in the everyday lineup.

"It was more than just the knee," he said. "It was whether I could still play. It was whether I could help the ballclub. I had to come out here and play. . . . Fortunately, this spring I have gotten the opportunity to play day in and day out."

It didn't start out well. Hammonds needed a couple of weeks to get comfortable, which only led to more speculation that he still might not be ready to establish himself as an everyday player. The whispers were starting again, so he had to make a conscious effort to block everything out and keep the focus on Opening Day.

"That's how I've always been, but it has been hard always having to answer all the questions about how I am," Hammonds said. "I was trying to keep it as simple as I could. . . . I've been driving 55 all spring."

Not too fast. Not too slow.

That approach has served him well. He has been the club's most consistent hitter and will start the season as one of the everyday outfielders, though Johnson won't go with just three. The Orioles signed Devereaux as a free agent and traded for Tony Tarasco, both of whom could get more playing time than the average reserve outfielder. The outfield mix could be eclectic, but Hammonds no longer has to prove that he should be a prominent part of it.

"Not that one guy is any more important than anybody else -- because you need 25 players to win -- but it's important to get your young guys established," Johnson said. "I've been lucky during my career that a lot of young guys have stepped up to establish themselves."

Hammonds isn't ready to take anything to the bank yet. The Orioles haven't played a real game yet. He may be leading the club with 22 hits this spring, but he'll be back to zero on Monday.

"I never thought that I couldn't hit," he said. "I came here as a hitter. I didn't hit well last year, but it's hard to hit when you play once every two weeks. It's a matter of playing the game. I'm not here trying to prove anybody wrong. I'm just trying to do my best and play the game as hard as I can." So far, so good.

"This is just the beginning," he said. "There are 162 games ahead and I have to keep this intensity all the way through."

Ups and downs

Highlights and lowlights from the Orioles' 8-3 victory over the New York Mets yesterday:

Ups

Second baseman Roberto Alomar had a double, a home run and a triple in three at-bats. He didn't get a chance to hit for the cycle because manager Davey Johnson replaced him with Jeff Huson after his third at-bat.

Catcher Chris Hoiles also had three hits, including a three-run home run. He finished the game with four RBIs to tie Bobby Bonilla for the team lead with 11.

Rick Krivda and Armando Benitez each pitched a perfect inning of relief.

Downs

Mike Mussina finished the exhibition season with a 5.85 ERA, leaving Scott Erickson as the only member of the starting rotation with a spring ERA under 4.85.

The Orioles hit into three double plays and still left nine runners on base.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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