MINNEAPOLIS - The face of the Orioles' rebuilding effort belongs to Jerry Hairston, an enthusiastic third-generation major-league talent who stands to become the first everyday player drafted, developed and deployed by the Orioles since Cal Ripken. There are few players who revel more in success or dwell more in defeat than the zestful 24-year-old second baseman.
In the aftermath of yesterday's 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins, no one undressed more slowly than Hairston. Not starting pitcher Pat Hentgen, whose record fell to 1-3 because of an uncharacteristically imprecise five-inning appearance that raised his ERA to only 3.32. Not third baseman Mike Kinkade, whose hitless day dropped him to 3-for-20 since manager Mike Hargrove announced his status as an everyday presence.
If Hairston's is the face of the new Orioles, then yesterday was for introspection.
Hairston actually managed one of his team's five hits against Twins left-handed starter J. C. Romero (1-1) and four relievers, but he also committed an unsightly error and exited a brutal road trip with a .173 batting average and in a 4-for-40 funk.
"It's one of those things where you keep working hard," said Hairston, who is pursuing his first full major-league season. "Hopefully, it all pays off and in June and July you're back where you want to be."
"Right now he's in between," Hargrove said this weekend about Hairston. "He's behind the fastball and out in front of the curve."
That's where the impressionable Orioles stand. On days like yesterday, they are undone by seemingly harmless matchups. On another, they can overcome a three-time Cy Young Award winner.
To avoid dwelling on his average, Hairston has told himself to stop looking at the scoreboard when he comes to bat. He is trying to make adjustments with his hands and his approach. "Sometimes," he said, "you've got to concentrate and go from at-bat to at-bat."
Yesterday the Orioles went from at-bat to at-bat and inning to inning without success before a Metrodome crowd of 23,011 excited by its unlikely division-leading team.
A younger team than the Orioles, the bargain-basement Twins sent only nine hitters against Hentgen in the first three innings but took a 3-0 lead in the fourth when Cristian Guzman tripled over first base, Matt Lawton singled and third baseman Corey Koskie crushed a misplaced changeup for a two-run homer.
"Really, the only hard-hit ball was the home run," said Hargrove. "[Hentgen] started off fine making his pitches but as the game wore on he got the ball back over the middle of the plate."
"I just didn't make good quality pitches. In order to win at this level, you have to make quality pitches inning after inning after inning. I didn't do that today," said Hentgen, who entered with a career 13-3 record and 2.43 ERA against the Twins.
Hitless for three innings, the Orioles did nothing with two early errors and two walks. Trailing 3-0, Mike Bordick and Delino DeShields reached to start the sixth inning only to have Romero escape by getting a ground ball from Kinkade and consecutive strikeouts of Ripken and Chris Richard.
"Romero threw the ball very well today," Hargrove said. "He threw his off-speed stuff behind in the count."
Romero carried an 8.56 ERA into the game and was in danger of falling from the Twins' rotation. Last season he was 0-6 with a 7.93 ERA in his last nine starts.
The Orioles faced him last season and liked what they saw, leaving him with two losses and a 12.27 ERA in 7 1/3 total innings. But since Romero is left-handed, he automatically neutralizes much of the remade Orioles' power.
The Orioles entered yesterday with two home runs in 105 at-bats against left-handed pitching. One of them was from Jeff Conine, scratched from the game with a bruised left hand.
The left-handed-hitting Richard replaced Conine at first base. An aggressive force against right-handed pitching, Richard has so far struggled for discipline against left-handers. He managed an infield single for the Orioles' first hit in yesterday's fourth inning but it was sandwiched between strikeouts that left him with four in eight at-bats against lefties.
Richard's impressive 2000 season included 14 home runs - 13 in 176 at-bats against right-handers and one in 39 at-bats against left-handers. The sampling may be small, but discerning whether Richard is an everyday or platoon player is among the studies the Orioles have undertaken this season.
"It changed things," Hargrove acknowledged regarding Conine's absence. "It certainly put one more left-handed bat in the lineup, but that left-handed bat got two hits for us. Still it leaves a bat like Jeff's out of the lineup and it hurts the club later in the ballgame."
Richard's day included a dazzling catch running away from the plate in foul territory but it also involved a bizarre base-running gaffe after his fourth-inning single