For O's, what a difference a year makes

Orioles Plus

Injury bug struck hard last season, but this year, team is getting healthier

August 11, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The Orioles finished 35 games under .500 last season, and the way injuries thinned the roster, it's a wonder they did that well. With limited choices, Mike Hargrove had to piece together a series of make-shift lineups down the stretch.

On Sept. 20, for example, the starting lineup looked like this:

Luis Matos, cf

Brian Roberts, ss

Jeff Conine, 1b

Chris Richard, dh

Cal Ripken, 3b

Mike Kinkade, rf

Brady Anderson, lf

Brook Fordyce, c

Jerry Hairston, 2b

It was a combination of minor-leaguers being rushed to the big leagues and stars in the twilight of their careers. Baseball being baseball, the Orioles went out and defeated the Toronto Blue Jays that night, 12-6, but their record stood at 56-89.

What a difference a year makes. Instead of getting thinner, the Orioles are getting healthier this season. Richard and Conine are back from the disabled list, Mike Bordick could return Friday, and they still hope to have David Segui back by season's end.

The Orioles could conceivably field a lineup in September that looks something like this:

Jerry Hairston, 2b

Gary Matthews, cf

David Segui, 1b

Jeff Conine, lf

Jay Gibbons, rf

Tony Batista, 3b

Chris Richard, dh

Geronimo Gil, c

Mike Bordick, ss

Hargrove would have some tough choices, but he'd sure have a stronger bench, with Melvin Mora, Marty Cordova, Chris Singleton and Fordyce still competing for playing time.

The Orioles are 8-3 since Richard returned after missing four months recovering from his shoulder injury. They are 3-1 since Conine returned after missing 45 games with a hamstring injury. And those two accounted for all four RBIs as the Orioles completed a three-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins on Thursday with a 4-1 victory.

"Anytime you get those kinds of people back, it really adds a spark to the lineup," Hargrove said. "It puts other people in positions in the lineup to hit more comfortably.

"When you lose people like that, you end up taking round pegs and trying to fit them into square holes. You jam them in there enough, and hope that they'll stay in there until those guys come back."

One critique scouts often share about the Orioles is that they have too many players vying for the designated hitter role, players limited defensively for whatever reason. There is already a log-jam with Richard's throwing ability likely limited until he can return to the outfield next season.

Hargrove has a daily choice to make with Gibbons, Cordova and Conine, and that will only get more complicated if and when Segui returns. And when Bordick returns to shortstop, there won't always be a position for Mora, who has been the team's answer in the leadoff spot this season.

Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift sees having this stockpile of similar players as a plus.

"Baseball is an endurance contest," he said. "You need to build a team so the manager has the ability to rest a couple guys here or there, and do all the things you have to do so your season doesn't end in July."

Last year, for all intents and purposes, the Orioles' season did end when Pat Hentgen, Bordick, Segui and Gibbons went down with injuries. There were limited gains in their absences because the replacements were so young.

This year, the Orioles have shown more signs of growth, especially Matthews, who came into the season as a .217 career hitter and is batting .299 after going 2-for-4 last night. With Conine and Segui both on the disabled list, the Orioles went 22-23, and they were also without Bordick during the latter part of that stretch.

"In one sense it hasn't been good," Hargrove said. "In the other sense it's been great because it's given Matthews and Jose Leon and those guys a chance to show us what they can do on more than a one-day-a-week basis. Probably at the stage we're at as a ballclub, it's probably a good thing."

The players see that. They've seen how much more competitive the team is this season, and they seem willing to tolerate the logjams at certain positions if it means having a healthier team down the stretch.

"If it puts me in a definite platoon position, but it helps us win, whatever," Gibbons said. "We've got a lot of guys who deserve to be playing, and we'll just have to see when everybody gets back, what happens. Our team's getting better as the season goes on."

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