Oriole finds a home for tools

Well-traveled Matthews putting down roots here with skills, work ethic


May 14, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Any discussions about Gary Matthews Jr. always include a verbal inventory of his many tools. This guy just as easily could pass for a carpenter as he does a major-league outfielder.

He's fast, he's strong, he has a cannon for an arm, he runs down every ball. These are just some of the tools of his trade. He has also been shipped to so many places, he should be packed in bubble wrap.

There's no way to separate Matthews from his many physical skills or the way teams have been willing to part with them. The Orioles inherited them on April 3, becoming the fifth organization to employ him in the past two years.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's sports section, an Oriole in a photograph was incorrectly identified as Gary Matthews. The player pictured was Melvin Mora. The Sun regrets the error.

Maybe this time, it will be different. Maybe this time, he's really found a home.

Maybe this time, Matthews won't be wrong for thinking it.

"I'd love for that to be the situation, but it's real early," he said. "It's only May. But I feel comfortable."

Matthews appeared in his 24th game with the Orioles on Sunday, grounding out as a pinch hitter. His average dipped to .288, still 71 points higher than his career mark. He tripled in consecutive games last week and played all three outfield positions in separate starts, as manager Mike Hargrove found creative ways to work him into the lineup.

"Gary's swinging the bat well right now, and there's so many things that he does well," Hargrove said. "It just makes it a little more difficult, juggling to where you get at-bats for him and for [Chris] Singleton. We'll try to handle that.

"A lot of times, if you're inconsistent at the plate, it doesn't give the manager the opportunity to put you in the lineup and let you work your way out of it. He's got tremendous tools, a lot of talent, and everybody thinks if he plays for us he'll be good. Right now, he's playing well and he's a pure pleasure to have on the team."

Singleton was supposed to be the No. 2 hitter after the Orioles acquired him from the Chicago White Sox during the winter, but Matthews fills that role when he plays. He can't be viewed as a regular because of his stints on the bench - he started once during the three-game series against Tampa Bay that concluded Sunday - but the plate appearances are building. So is his confidence.

"It always helps when you get at-bats," he said, "but since I've been here I've tried to maintain a policy of just being ready when I'm called upon."

That definitely should happen Thursday when the Orioles conclude a three-game series in Cleveland by facing left-hander C.C. Sabathia. Being a switch-hitter gives Matthews an edge over the left-handed-hitting Singleton.

Perhaps his name will appear on Hargrove's card tonight against Danys Baez or tomorrow against Bartolo Colon, especially with David Segui's injured wrist shifting Marty Cordova from left field to designated hitter the past two games.

"I knew coming in there was going to be a situation where I had to earn my playing time, especially with the team already set," said Matthews, 27, who was dealt by the New York Mets for injury-prone reliever John Bale.

"They've been together all spring. It's difficult coming in four days into the season where the guys have already met, being the new guy and also being down a little bit about the trade and not knowing what to expect. I had a lot of things going on in my head.

"I knew it wasn't going to be an easy situation to get playing time, but things have worked out pretty good so far. Hopefully, I'll continue to make the improvements I need to make. It's a new league, and there are a lot of guys I don't know as far as the pitching staffs are concerned. It's a major adjustment, and I'm sort of doing it on the fly.

"We've got our scouting reports, but the best experience is getting out there and being between the lines. That's been the key for me, getting to know the pitchers and getting to know the game."

He was introduced to baseball at an early age because of his father, a former major-league outfielder who serves as Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach. Expectations have always followed Matthews because of his bloodlines.

"I didn't feel it when I first got to the minor leagues, but when I got to the majors, everybody wanted to compare me to my father," he said. "When I first came up, our games were different. But I've gotten a little bit older and started maturing, and I start to remind myself of my father so much sometimes, it's scary. I watch myself on videotape, and it's not only our styles, but our physical similarities. It's something I'm proud of."

Pressure also came from his status as one of the San Diego Padres' can't-miss prospects before they traded him to the Chicago Cubs in March 2000. "You've got to be on the field in order to live up to that kind of stuff," he said.

Matthews reached the majors in 1999, six years after being drafted in the 13th round. He appeared in only 23 games with the Padres before they gave up on him. He accumulated 405 at-bats last season, which he split between the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.

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