For Orioles, middle men are an upgrade from 2001

Hargrove is pleased with defense up middle

March 15, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles manager Mike Hargrove once guided a Cleveland Indians team that featured second baseman Roberto Alomar, shortstop Omar Vizquel, catcher Sandy Alomar and center fielder Kenny Lofton.

So forgive him if he tempers his enthusiasm about the current troupe he has patrolling the middle of the diamond.

Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston is a year older, and a year wiser. Shortstop Mike Bordick is mostly recovered from last year's season-ending shoulder surgery. Catcher Brook Fordyce is determined to put a disappointing first season in Baltimore behind him.

And the new center fielder, Chris Singleton, has shown terrific range this spring.

Comparing this bunch to the 1999 Indians? "That's tough," Hargrove said.

But comparing it to the 2001 Orioles?

"I think we're a better ballclub up-the-middle than we were at any time last year," Hargrove said. "I don't view our up-the-middle defense as a weakness of ours. I think it's very consistent."

A year ago, it was anything but consistent.

Bordick separated his right shoulder in June, trying to turn a double play, and he never returned. He tried, but he tore his right labrum during a rehabilitation assignment in August.

As a result, the Orioles were forced to split the shortstop duties, mostly between Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora. To replace Mora in center field, the Orioles had to use rookies Chris Richard, Luis Matos and Larry Bigbie.

"When your shortstop goes down," Bordick said, "and your center fielder has to come in and play shortstop, that just kind of throws a wrench into the whole plan."

Hairston, playing his first full season in the big leagues, suddenly had to handle some of the extra responsibilities that usually fell to Bordick. The shortstop and second baseman must communicate constantly, deciding how to position themselves against opposing hitters, deciding who will cover second base on an attempted steal.

Those duties fell to Hairston, and he wound up leading all American League second basemen in errors, with 19. His offensive performance also suffered, as he hit just .233.

With Bordick back this spring, the coaching staff has already noticed a difference. In a two-day span this week, the Orioles turned nine double plays. Hairston has been mentioned as a possible Gold Glove candidate now that Roberto Alomar, the American League's perennial winner at second base, has moved to the New York Mets.

The Orioles were also desperate for Hairston to prove adequate in the leadoff role, and so far he has answered that call, batting .323 in exhibition games.

"You've got a veteran at short who can control the infield," said Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo. "It allows the younger guys to take care of themselves, and consequently they're playing better. It's not a surprise."

To baseball people, the importance of up-the-middle defense can't be overstated.

Perlozzo is no exception.

"I don't think you ever see a team in the World Series that doesn't have a good shortstop-second base combination," he said. "And they have to be strong behind the plate and strong in center. It's very difficult for teams to win without a strong middle."

The Orioles went 63-98 last season, and it's worth noting that with Bordick they were 27-31 with a .982 fielding percentage, compared to 36-67 with a .978 fielding percentage without him.

Granted, injuries to first baseman David Segui and starting pitcher Pat Hentgen were also key factors in the Orioles' late-season collapse. But Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, said he went into the off-season making up-the-middle defense a priority.

"Defense up the middle is critical," Thrift said. "It's absolutely necessary to win baseball games. And we have really improved ourselves."

By getting Singleton from the Chicago White Sox for second base prospect Willie Harris, the Orioles have not only shored up center field, they've also allowed Mora to return to a utility role.

To shore up the catcher position, where Fordyce threw out just 19.1 percent (21 of 110) of the opposing base stealers last season, the Orioles have Geronimo Gil and Fernando Lunar competing for the job during camp.

With the Orioles banking on their young pitching becoming the future of the franchise, they view their defense as an investment, especially up the middle.

"Certainly the pitching is a lot better if you can catch the balls that you put in play," Hargrove said. "If a pitcher goes out there and thinks I have to miss every bat or I'm in trouble, then that's counterproductive. I don't think our pitchers feel that way, and I don't think they'll feel that way at all this year."

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