For rookie Morales, 27, it was worth wait

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Catcher calls getting hit in first at-bat `unbelievable'

April 10, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Sleep came easily to Willie Morales on Saturday night. His thoughts weren't consumed by a pending start the next day, his first in the major leagues. The Orioles' backup catcher somehow managed to stay relaxed while fully appreciating what lay ahead.

Finally escaping the minors this season after 660 games, Morales provided Charles Johnson with a breather yesterday during the Orioles' 11-6 victory over the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards. He also provided a personal highlight by lining a single to center field on the first pitch thrown to him, bringing a wide grin as he stood on first base and the ball was retrieved.

The last Oriole to collect a hit in his first major-league at-bat was Ryan Minor on Sept. 13, 1998, against the Anaheim Angels. It wouldn't be the last hit collected by Morales yesterday. He added another single in the fourth, this one scooting into left field.

"There's no way to describe what I was feeling. It's just unbelievable," Morales said. "I was pretty much overwhelmed."

Morales, 27, spent most of last season with Double-A Midland, an affiliate of the Oakland Athletics.

Sitting at his locker before the game, Morales said: "This is what you play your whole career for. You want to go out there and have a good time, but at the same time I want to keep this team in the zone that we've got going out there."

Morales said he didn't receive much advice or input from his teammates. He blended with the crowd, looking like any other player getting ready for a game.

"I don't think I deserve any special attention," he said.

Even with the presence of his family at the game, Morales remained calm. Manager Mike Hargrove took notice.

"I've been impressed with his mental approach," Hargrove said.

April return for Erickson?

The Orioles continue to avoid setting a timetable for Scott Erickson's return to the rotation, but Hargrove indicated yesterday that a best-case scenario would have Erickson pitching in the majors again by April 25.

Erickson threw a three-inning simulated game Saturday, his fifth bullpen session since having bone chips removed from his right elbow March 3. He's expected to throw a four-inning simulated game in Kansas City on Tuesday, then follow with another in Minnesota.

Hargrove said he would have a better idea of Erickson's availability on the road trip, but added: "Right now, we're looking anywhere from the 25th of April to the first of May. If he stays on schedule, maybe a little earlier. If he has a setback, maybe a little later. Somewhere in that area."

Hairston departs

As Mercedes readied for yesterday's start, second baseman Jerry Hairston packed his gear in preparation for his trip to Triple-A Rochester.

Hairston was sent down to make room for Jose Mercedes, which gives Hargrove a 12-man staff. Hairston didn't appear in a game this season after batting .383 in spring training.

"I want to play, and I want to play here," he said. "I'm not going to make remarks that I'm happy to play in Rochester, but, hey, that's the reality. I'm going to go down there and play as hard as I can, because once I step on the field, it doesn't matter where I am."

Hargrove said there are no plans to give Hairston some starts at shortstop. "We like him at second base," he said.

Conine is man on move

Hargrove went with a renovated lineup that also included the first start for center fielder Rich Amaral this season. Jeff Conine, who made his first major-league start at third base Saturday, moved to first yesterday, with Will Clark serving as the designated hitter against Tigers left-hander C. J. Nitkowski.

Playing a more familiar position, Conine committed a first-inning error that gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead. He fielded a bouncer from Bobby Higginson, and with Mercedes cutting in front of him, threw wide of the plate trying to cut down Luis Polonia. He atoned for the mistake in the second inning with a diving catch in foul territory that stranded two runners, and made a nice stop of a smash down the line in the fourth.

Conine had gotten through Saturday's game without a hitch, fielding both chances cleanly.

Third base coach Sam Perlozzo has seen progress in Conine at third since the early, jittery stages of camp. He also understands the difficult adjustment.

"When you move over to that position from the other corner, the ball comes to you different," Perlozzo said. "It's a whole different angle, but you still catch the ball the same. It's just a matter of getting comfortable and getting certain plays hit to you all the time so you can relax."

Weathering the elements

The Orioles braced for the cold weather before leaving the clubhouse yesterday, with heavy jackets being part of the day's fashion statement. They sought relief from winds that gusted at 20-30 mph, and a game-time wind-chill of 29 degrees.

Pitcher Mike Mussina asked one of his teammates if a woolen cap was needed, then slipped it on without waiting for an answer. Veteran move.

Mercedes took the opposite approach, choosing to leave his arms exposed. "I pitch without sleeves all the time," he said. "I don't like long sleeves."

Clark never has been bothered by the elements, either. April weather can be unpredictable. The only constant is his production.

"I've played in heat, cold, whatever. It doesn't matter. That has no effect on it," said Clark, who's batting .500 and collected his first three RBIs yesterday.

"It's just being able to go out there and block everything out and do your job."

Around the horn

Tigers second baseman Damion Easley injured a muscle in his right rib cage while swinging at a pitch in the first inning. Albert Belle hit his second double yesterday. He didn't collect his second one last season until May 29.

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