Improved Devil Rays make impression

ORIOLES PLUS

Tampa Bay's top prospects leave O's in their wake

April 13, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The subject was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but one could have sworn Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston was talking about the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Give them some credit, they're good," Hairston said. "Everybody's been dogging them, but they're going to ambush some people. They're a fun team to watch, if you're not playing against them."

It was shortly after 10 on Thursday morning, pretty early by baseball standards, and the listener wanted to make sure Hairston was fully awake.

The Devil Rays? The team that went 55-106 last season? The team that has cushioned the Orioles' fall the past five years by holding down last place in the American League East?

"I know it's early [in the season]," Hairston said, "but from what I've seen on TV, and from what I've seen so far, they're the most improved team in baseball."

Yes, Hairston insisted, those Devil Rays. The team that overcame two leads to defeat the Orioles on Tuesday and then did the very same thing the next night. The team that almost pulled off the three-game sweep, leaving the tying run 90 feet from home plate in the series finale.

Scouts still figure the Orioles have enough pitching to keep Tampa Bay beneath them in the standings for one more season. But the Devil Rays have the more promising young position players, and they look poised to pass the Orioles in the years to come.

Lou Piniella was no dummy. After watching players such as Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki blossom with the Seattle Mariners, he returned to his hometown to manage the Devil Rays, just when Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli were ready to bloom.

Both players are 21, and both started the year with 10-game hitting streaks. Baldelli's reached 11 yesterday. Piniella stuck those two atop his lineup, and they have changed the entire complexion of the team.

When Crawford beat out a ground ball to Orioles shortstop Deivi Cruz on Tuesday, one National League scout had him timed down the line at 3.8 seconds.

"It's happened to me before, like with Ichiro his first year," Cruz said. "[Crawford] can fly. He's even faster than [Minnesota Twins shortstop] Cristian Guzman."

Baldelli, a right-handed hitter who plays center field, has drawn comparisons to a young Joe DiMaggio, and scouts don't throw that sort of praise around lightly.

By Thursday, Crawford's and Baldelli's speed was starting to play tricks on the Orioles' heads. To be sure, the Orioles won't look forward to playing Tampa Bay anymore, especially at Tropicana Field, where the Devil Rays had a major league-best 22 infield hits on their 10-game homestand.

"They almost play the style of game Minnesota does," Hairston said. "It's very similar."

Crawford's and Baldelli's energy at the top seems to have sparked some of Tampa Bay's other's hitters, many of whom came over after struggling with other teams. Travis Lee is batting .347. Al Martin is at .320, Rey Ordonez .310 and Marlon Anderson .276.

"It's a completely different team," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "That's a much better ballclub this year than last year."

Piniella has been careful not to let the expectations soar for his young team. They had the worst defense and pitching in the American League entering yesterday, and those areas will have to improve a lot before any real progress will be made.

The first series with the Orioles came as a welcome break between 16 consecutive games against the Red Sox and Yankees. Yesterday's loss to New York dropped Tampa Bay's record to 4-7.

"I don't care about the record. We played hard and that's important," Piniella said. "If you play well enough, the record takes care of itself. Just keep playing hard and take your chances."

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