Mora continues to tinker to reinvent himself at third

Last season's left fielder, O's jack of many positions, finds it's not like shortstop

Reinventing himself at third means Mora keeps tinkering

March 09, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The first ball hit to Melvin Mora in the Orioles' first intrasquad game took a sharp hop off his chest and rolled away for an error.

The first ball hit to Mora in the first exhibition game was a sharp grounder that he backhanded along the line before sailing a throw to the fence for an error.

Still in the infancy of his switch to third base, Mora had two choices: storm into the manager's office and plead for a position change or keep working to make himself better.

The Orioles never doubted how he'd react, and neither did Mora.

"Those balls were pretty tough, but that's why I want them all hit to me," he said. "I don't want just one grounder every nine innings, when I'm not ready for it."

Alex Rodriguez isn't the only player in the American League East who's receiving a crash course on playing third this spring - just the most expensive. The Orioles had a vacancy and a crowded outfield that didn't leave room for Mora, who made most of his starts in left last season. It seemed like a convenient marriage.

The relationship so far has been rocky. Mora committed his second error yesterday on a hard one-hopper by Olmedo Saenz during the Orioles' 14-5 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The ball deflected off his glove, and David Ross followed with a three-run homer.

Sensing what direction the club was taking, Mora began fielding grounders at third during batting practice last year. He'd stand beside Tony Batista, one of his closest friends and often a partner in animated clubhouse debates, and scoop up fungoes from bench coach Sam Perlozzo.

"I'd go over there sometimes with Tony because I knew they wanted Larry Bigbie to go to left field, and they know I'm able to play all the positions and figure I won't have any problems," he said. "I already was preparing myself."

Team executives Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan called their lone All-Star representative after the season to give him advance notice and allow him to focus.

"We told him that third base was his. He was very comfortable with it," Flanagan said. "He said, `Whatever you want me to do.' He seemed to welcome the challenge."

"I had no problem with it, because I knew they were doing it to make this club stronger," said Mora, who has appeared in seven games at third in the majors, none since 2000. "Now, if it was a position I don't know how to play, I would have said so right away, but I've played it before so I said, `Yes, it's fine for me.'"

As if the front office could find a position that stumped him. Mora has pretty much done it all in the majors. Over a span of 11 games last season, he started at second, shortstop, left, right and center.

"If they had put me at first, I can help one day but not every day," he said. Pausing as if doing a mental check list, Mora added, "And catcher is tough for me."

Third base has brought the expected adjustments. Mora said he has "shortstop legs," which instinctively rush him to the ball. And he no longer can read each pitch.

"In the beginning, every time they hit it, I was like a shortstop when you charge it. I still had that move forward," he said. "I'm working on it every day."

A shortstop sets his feet and catches the ball. A third baseman fields the ball and sets his feet. Mora just needs to get the order straight.

"Melvin has good first-step quickness," said Perlozzo, who works with the infielders. "Catching and throwing the ball, I don't see a problem with that. It's just going to take repetition, and it'll take the entire spring, on balls that are backhanded, balls to his left, balls that come in. But his arm and glove are plenty good enough.

"We made an adjustment on his setup already. We're getting him off the ball a little quicker, getting him on his toes more instead of just standing flat-footed and waiting."

Mora is also learning not to lower his arm when making throws. He's still inclined to react as though he's trying to cut down a runner from the hole.

"At third base," he said, "you've got just one angle."

You also get second chances.

In Sunday's game against the Florida Marlins, Mora couldn't make a backhanded stop of a sharp grounder near the line, but he ranged behind the bag to rob Hee Seop Choi and strand two runners. And he atoned for yesterday's error with a diving stop and throw to save a run.

"Now I'm feeling comfortable because I'm playing there more," he said.

Batista signed with the Montreal Expos during the winter, and Mora was disappointed he didn't make the trip to Fort Lauderdale for Saturday's game.

"When you have a guy like Tony, a friend, when a guy like that leaves and you take the position he played, it's hard, but it's business," Mora said.

Batista gave another friend, Miguel Tejada, his best sales pitch before the free-agent shortstop accepted the Orioles' six-year, $72 million offer. It was a nice gesture, considering the team had no interest in retaining him.

The giving didn't stop there. Tejada inherited Batista's No. 10, which amuses Mora.

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