Finally healthy, Segui hopes start to season is open-ended

Veteran looking forward to being in opening lineup

March 30, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles' chartered bus returned from Fort Myers yesterday with David Segui still in one piece. He didn't step in a divot near first base or play a grounder off his thumb. His left wrist is sore - there's always pain in Segui's world - but he can play.

As Opening Night approaches, it's becoming more evident that he will play.

Only four more exhibition games separate Segui from the active roster, four more games to at least tug, if not completely rip, the warning label of fragility that's practically sewn into his uniform since he signed a four-year, $28 million contract in December 2000.

"I'm feeling fine," he said. "The wrist hurts a little on some days, but that's all right."

When manager Lee Mazzilli broke out a lineup Saturday night that might have passed for the opener model, Segui batted seventh as the designated hitter against the Florida Marlins' Josh Beckett. He could be doing the same against Boston's Pedro Martinez when the games begin to count.

All he has to do is stay healthy.

Segui has been limited to 175 of the Orioles' 485 games since he rejoined the organization as a free agent. The most recent crisis involved a second surgery in two years to repair a damaged tendon in his left wrist, which concluded a year that began with the broken thumb - the result of a batting practice accident on March 12 in Fort Myers.

After going 2-for-4 and hitting his first spring training homer yesterday against the Boston Red Sox, Segui is 13-for-49 (.265) with four RBIs. He still looks smooth at first base and certainly capable of giving Rafael Palmeiro an occasional rest, but he's also been briefly shut down twice because of swelling in the wrist and stiffness that extends to his forearm.

"I'm confident that I can play first at a high level," he said.

"I'm very comfortable with him there," Mazzilli said. "He's always been a good defensive player. The question is, is anyone 100 percent when you play this game? That's the true makings of a player, the guys who are not 100 percent but are playing."

That's the only way Segui can get on the field. It has been so long since he has felt 100 percent, he wouldn't recognize the symptoms.

"I still enjoy doing this," he said. "The game starts; there's nothing like it. It's the best, being out there and competing. But the time it takes me to get my body ready to perform at that level ... "

With so few left-handers in the division, Segui shouldn't be forced to bat from the right side with any regularity. And that's good, considering his left hand is only half as strong as the right, and he can't release it after making contact when it's on the bottom of the bat.

Segui homered from the left side yesterday and lined out to left in the ninth inning while batting right-handed.

"He's swinging better left-handed right now than he is right-handed," Mazzilli said. "I just think watching him that he feels more comfortable. That has to do with any switch-hitter. You always feel more comfortable on one side than the other. It's hard to maintain both sides equally all the time, so you go to your strength. We'll see how it goes."

With Marty Cordova headed to the disabled list, it's not like Mazzilli has a host of right-handed options at DH. B.J. Surhoff and Jack Cust are left-handed hitters. Javy Lopez will be used in that role to increase his at-bats, which tempts Mazzilli to carry a third catcher.

The roster composition changes if Segui, 37, is available and dependable. With the team so close to breaking camp, he must feel as though he's tempting fate every time he slides hard into second base, leans into a pitch or chases a foul ball to the railing. But he presses on, convinced that this spring will be different.

"I feel good that it's getting to the point where I can definitely play," he said. "You sit around all winter waiting for it to heal up and you're hoping it'll be fine, but you don't really know where it's going to be. To be this far along, I'm really pleased."

Segui mostly batted third last season before his final game on July 25, but he doesn't mind tumbling down the lineup while Miguel Tejada, Palmeiro and Lopez constitute its heart. As long as he's in it.

"I hit wherever they put me," he said. "I've never been one to [complain] about where they put me. I've hit ninth, I've hit eighth, I've hit third and fourth. It doesn't matter. This season, I'll have a chance to drive in a lot of runs in that spot."

Opportunities are becoming more scarce for a player who's prepared to retire after the season. Segui wants to spend more time with his two children, who live in Kansas City, and said he'll most likely hang up his spikes no matter how 2004 treats him.

"Nothing's ever definite," he said, "but this will probably be it."

Segui began last season with the first of his three stops on the disabled list. He didn't want to participate in the Opening Day ceremonies, which only reminded him of all he was missing. Four more exhibition games, and he can jog down the orange carpet for the April 4 introductions, on knees that no longer have cartilage, but in a better frame of mind.

"To be healthy for the start of the season is something you usually take for granted," he said, a bat gripped in both hands, "but I'm definitely not doing that."

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