O's let games, job hunt begin

Exhibition season opens with many vying for few spots

February 28, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Unless the Montreal Expos are contracted within the next 24 hours, the Orioles will play their first exhibition game tonight.

No longer confined to hitting and pitching against each other, the Orioles completed three days of intrasquad games yesterday before diving into their Grapefruit League schedule. Now, it gets a little more serious, and, for many players, a little more urgent.

Jason Johnson and Sidney Ponson are supposed to throw two innings against the little orphan Expos, who will make the hour-long drive from Jupiter, Fla. The evening holds greater significance for the relievers who follow: Jorge Julio, Sean Runyan, Chris Brock, Juan Rosario and Willis Roberts.

For Roberts, the incumbent closer, these games could define a role. For the others, they could determine a job.

Julio most likely will remain with the club in a late-inning capacity, as closer or setup man, unless he somehow manages to pitch himself off it. Brock is trying to stay as a long and middle reliever, duties that could become available if Calvin Maduro makes the rotation as the fifth starter. Runyan must out-pitch John Parrish or John Bale - perhaps both.

Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president for baseball operations, continues to explore trades that would bring a veteran closer. Dave Veres has been a possibility ever since the St. Louis Cardinals signed free agent Jason Isringhausen.

Thrift said he'd be comfortable going into the season without making any moves, but added: "Any time we can improve any one of these positions, we'll do it."

The waiver wire will be monitored closely, with players who appear on it being compared to those already in camp. "We'll say, `OK, is he better than this guy?' And if he's not, you let him go," Thrift said. "Now, if a slam-dunk thing comes along, then you make that move."

The second week of camp concluded yesterday with Scott Erickson throwing two scoreless innings, though he allowed a double to Mike Bordick in the first and a single to Larry Bigbie in the second. Both balls were hit hard, as were a liner to third by Tony Batista and a grounder to short by Marty Cordova. Erickson went to a full count on the leadoff hitter, Jerry Hairston, before striking him out.

Erickson hasn't pitched since undergoing ligament-transplant surgery in August 2000, but still projects as the Opening Day starter.

"His command was a little shaky that first at-bat against Jerry, but he threw a nasty sinker to strike him out," manager Mike Hargrove said.

Though it's too early to begin critiquing the velocity on Erickson's fastball, Hargrove said, "It looks like he's throwing it as well or better than he did in his last bullpen in Baltimore last year. There's not a dramatic difference. If there was, then it would be cause for concern."

To reduce the stress on their arms, pitchers thus far have been restricted to fastballs and changeups. "It really exposes some of them to the fact they need more than just a fastball and changeup," Hargrove said, "but the big thing is we have to establish our fastball and be able to command it in the strike zone."

The coming weeks will determine a fifth starter, with several candidates vying for the job. Two of them, Sean Douglass and Erik Bedard, pitch against the Expos tomorrow in Jupiter. Rick Bauer, John Stephens, Steve Bechler, Rodrigo Lopez and Matt Riley also are in the mix, but Hargrove said Maduro "has a leg up on them all."

There's still plenty of time to reach a decision. At this point, the Orioles simply are grateful for getting through two weeks of camp without any serious injuries.

Given the number of players who were hurt last season - 14 went on the disabled list and others were shut down - they'll continue to hold their breath.

"We ran out of breath last year. We were breathless," Thrift said.

"Everybody came here this spring in very good condition, even the young players. A lot of commitment was made, not just by veteran players, but by younger players. That's one way to prevent injuries."

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