Scoop on Orioles infield is that change is for better

Three faces in new places as Mora adjusts to third

March 28, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It's one of the cruelest plays in baseball, the hard smash hit right at the third baseman's feet.

From the grandstand, the whole thing is over in a split-second. From third base, the play seems to last an eternity.

When Sam Perlozzo, the Orioles' bench coach and infield guru, talks about the challenge Melvin Mora is facing this spring as he converts into an everyday third baseman, this is the play he mentions.

Mora, Perlozzo says, has looked good this spring fielding balls to his right and to his left. It's the hard smash that's going to take some time.

"I think the more he sees that play, the less fear he's going to have," Perlozzo says. "Not that he has any [fear], but anybody can take grounders at shortstop. And then they say, `Come on over here, and stand about 80 feet away, and let a guy rocket one right down on you.' It's a little different story."

Mora hasn't played third base on a daily basis since 1994, when he was at Single-A Osceola in the Houston Astros' system. But the Orioles are counting on their longtime utility man making the adjustment, because the overall team defense figures to be much improved this season if he can.

Three of the four infield positions will be different, with Mora replacing Tony Batista at third, Miguel Tejada replacing Deivi Cruz at shortstop, and Rafael Palmeiro replacing Jeff Conine at first. The Orioles view those as three improvements.

"Deivi did a great job for us, but I don't think he has the range of Miguel Tejada," Perlozzo says. "We've seen [Tejada] range all over the place, so that's a plus. And we know Tony worked his butt off to try to get his game in order, but Tony was limited by his physical abilities. Melvin's a little more athletic than Tony is.

"So range-wise, we should get to 'em. Now we've got to catch 'em."

A year ago, the Orioles had the American League's fifth-best fielding percentage at .983. They committed 105 errors, which was 40 more than the AL's best defensive team, the Seattle Mariners.

But those statistics measure only the balls fielders got to with their gloves. It does not factor in all the balls that squeaked through the seemingly giant hole between Cruz and Batista.

The Orioles saw what a difference range can make when they faced the Oakland Athletics last season, and Tejada was derailing rallies with his glove.

"He took a lot of hits away from me," Mora says. "I told him, `I should hit .340 this year because now you're over here.'"

Perlozzo, whose list of pupils includes such defensive stalwarts as Barry Larkin, Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, Omar Vizquel and Mike Bordick, sees a new challenge in Tejada.

Despite his penchant for the spectacular play, Tejada has never won a Gold Glove. His error totals during the past five seasons have been as steady as his presence in the everyday lineup: 21, 21, 20, 19 and 21.

"I think the approach we want to take is there are no normal plays," Perlozzo says. "And I think if we can get the mind-set that there isn't anything normal, we don't make easy mistakes, we don't relax, and we don't take something for granted."

Can Perlozzo help turn Tejada into a Gold Glove winner? It's happened before. He helped Palmeiro refine his defensive skills to the point where he won Gold Gloves at first base for the Orioles in 1997 and 1998 and one for the Texas Rangers in 1999.

And on the subject of defensive improvements for the Orioles, Perlozzo says not to overlook first base, where Palmeiro intends to play every day.

"Niner [Conine] was a really good first baseman, but the [Florida] Marlins have him out in left field," Perlozzo says. "Raffy's been a first baseman his whole life, and that's all he does. He's been in the league, he knows the game, he knows the players. And he's great at picking balls in the dirt. So that's going to help everyone in the infield, too."

In the outfield, the Orioles return all three starters from the second half of last season in left fielder Larry Bigbie, center fielder Luis Matos and right fielder Jay Gibbons.

Bigbie and Matos are above average defensively. Gibbons is considered below average, but as one major league scout said this week, "He doesn't hurt you out there." Gibbons had eight outfield assists last year, which was the third-most among AL right fielders. He gets a lot of chances because teams aren't afraid to challenge his arm.

"Last year, he improved at everything," Matos says of Gibbons. "He was making diving catches. Everybody was noticing his defense, and I was happy for him because he worked hard at it."

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