This time, Cust might stumble into roster spot with O's

On-base percentage could trump on-base clumsiness

March 25, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- An easy smile crosses Jack Cust's face when he thinks about it now: The stumble heard 'round the world.

Twelfth inning, two outs, the Orioles trailing the New York Yankees by a run. Larry Bigbie doubles into the gap, and a sellout crowd at Camden Yards goes bonkers. Cust lumbers around the bases from first, and it's the longest 270 feet of his life.

After rounding third, he falls -- not once, but twice. The Yankees botch the rundown play and leave home plate vacant. After collecting himself from the first fall, all Cust has to do is stay on his feet to score.

But he trips, of course, this time face-first, and Aaron Boone tags him for the final out. Cust's teammates are hanging on the dugout railing, stunned.

And the moment doesn't end there.

Cust, 25, hears about it all winter from Yankees fans back home in Flemington, N.J. He comes to the Orioles' FanFest, in early February, and little kids are still busting his chops.

"I've got to do something this year to make them forget about that," he says of his Aug. 16 blooper. "Hopefully I'll have a little highlight film to go with the lowlights. Get on SportsCenter for something good."

So Cust drops 7 pounds over the offseason and reports to spring training even more determined to make an impression on new Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. But with little more than a week remaining before the final roster decisions are made, Cust is batting .175.

He is out of minor league options, so the Orioles must either keep him on their 25-man Opening Day roster or expose him to the waiver wire. With Cust, it seems, the conundrums will never end.

But the Orioles remain patient. Though Cust's numbers are down this spring and he is viewed as a one-dimensional player -- all bat, no glove, and ... please ... no base-running -- team officials privately say he's a lock to make the roster.

"As long as you hit, they'll get you out there," Cust says. "For me, it just comes down to making a difference when I'm in the batter's box."

Cust, whose primary position is left field, has always been an intriguing hitter. He came to the Orioles last spring from the Colorado Rockies in a trade for Chris Richard. It was the first trade the Orioles made under the new regime of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan.

The Orioles sent Cust to Triple-A Ottawa, where he struggled at first but rebounded to hit .285 with nine home runs and 58 RBIs in 97 games. When the Orioles promoted him in early August, he was leading the International League with a .422 on-base percentage -- a critical statistic that highlights Cust's keen ability to take a walk.

Cust hit a home run off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera on Aug. 15, but the next night, he made that nightmare trip around the bases. He was barely heard from again. He made just six more starts until the final week of the season.

Considering his sporadic playing time, Cust put up decent major league numbers last season, batting .260 with four home runs, 11 RBIs and a .357 on-base percentage in 27 games.

Asked what kind of year he thought Cust could have this season, Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said, "It would depend on how much playing time he got. He makes adjustments pretty good, but if you don't get the at-bats, sometimes it's a little harder to make the adjustments that every hitter needs to make at the major league level."

Herein lies the dilemma for the Orioles. Cust is still an inexperienced player, and inexperienced players typically need regular work to blossom. Usually veterans are best-suited for roles off the bench. But the way the roster is shaping up, Cust is staring at a role as a left-handed hitter off the bench.

Mazzilli can use David Segui or B.J. Surhoff as his designated hitter, not to mention first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and catcher Javy Lopez on days they need a rest. And the Orioles' lineup is fairly solid top to bottom, so there figure to be few spots Mazzilli would want to pinch hit.

One exception would be hitting for the backup catcher on days when Lopez doesn't catch.

Early in the season, when Jerry Hairston and Mark McLemore come off the disabled list, the Orioles will be faced with some tough roster decisions. But for now, Cust isn't going anywhere. The Orioles don't think he'd last a minute on the waiver wire, considering his .436 career minor league on-base percentage.

Still, as one major league scout said this week, the drawback to using Cust as a pinch hitter is the manager must essentially burn two players. Cust goes in to hit, and then someone else has to play defense, because "there's no hiding him in the field," the scout said.

The Orioles still hope Cust hits enough to merit consideration as a full-time DH someday.

He has two home runs this spring, and multiple others were lost in the wind at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. On Friday alone, two of Cust's long fly balls got held up in the gusts coming in over the right-field fence.

"I do not pay any attention to batting average in spring training," Crowley said. "The wind is such a factor, especially with guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark. I go by how guys are swinging the bat. Jack is having very good at-bats."

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