Oriole Park gets off to flying start Six homers are hit, four by Cardinals, in O's dress rehearsal

March 31, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Orioles returned to Camden Yards yesterday to find that some things never change. The fences still are closer than they look and the ball still carries well on a breezy Baltimore afternoon.

The St. Louis Cardinals -- who fortunately will not be an Orioles interleague opponent this year -- hit four home runs on the way to an 11-4 victory before a tiny Easter crowd of 9,950.

There were six home runs in all. Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds hit his club-leading seventh of the exhibition season and Rafael Palmeiro continued his torrid spring, going 2-for-3 with a homer, but the Cardinals hammered starter Rocky Coppinger for seven runs in three-plus innings to leave a blemish on his otherwise solid spring performance.

Coppinger came into the game with a 3.15 ERA in six spring starts, but he gave up five hits, walked four and hit a batter on the way to his third exhibition defeat. He struggled in two of his final three starts after pitching halfway into the exhibition season without giving up an earned run.

"He was just all over the place today," manager Davey Johnson said. "He couldn't locate the ball. He fought himself. He couldn't enjoy himself out there. But he threw the ball good all spring. I'm not worried about it."

A 23-year-old right-hander, Coppinger didn't seem particularly concerned either. He handled pennant race pressure a year ago to win 10 games in little more than half a rookie season, then came back this spring with a bigger pitching repertoire and a better idea of what to do with it.

"I think I'm ready," Coppinger said. "It's been a long spring. That's not a good way to end it, but overall I think I threw the ball well. I had two bad outings in seven games. As a starter, I think you'll take five good outings out of seven."

Johnson used the game to get a couple of newcomers acclimated to Oriole Park. Fifth starter Shawn Boskie, who has pitched against the Orioles here six times, gave up a home run to John Mabry, but turned in a respectable four-inning performance. Rule 5 draftee Mike Johnson didn't fare as well -- giving up three runs over two innings of work -- but his manager was happy for the chance to get him out there before the games become meaningful.

"You got to get used to it, if you ever do," Davey Johnson said. "You've just got to be aggressive, and you've got to hit your spots. You also have to realize that there are going to be times when you make a good pitch and they still hit it hard."

There wasn't anything more to say about Hammonds, who arrived at spring training as a fringe outfielder and has forced his way into a much larger role. He closed the exhibition season leading the club in games, at-bats, hits, doubles and home runs, and ranked a close second behind Palmeiro with 21 RBIs.

"He has earned the right to play," Johnson said. "Circumstances dictate that he play, but he has earned it."

Regular center fielder Brady Anderson likely will start the season on the disabled list with a fractured rib and outfielder/DH Pete Incaviglia will be placed on the DL with a hamstring strain.

Tony Tarasco still is nursing a quadriceps strain, so Hammonds would figure to be in center field if Anderson does not make a convincing case for remaining active.

Johnson already has telegraphed his other roster decisions. He plans to go with a 13-man pitching staff, which means that veteran Kelly Gruber probably will be asked to start the season at Triple-A Rochester.

Gruber, who swung the bat well again yesterday, has not said he'll go, but he is expected to accept the assignment.

O's tomorrow

Opponent: Kansas City Royals

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 3: 05 p.m.

Tickets: Sold out

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)

Starters: Royals' Kevin Appier (14-11 in 1996) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (19-11 in '96)

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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