Bouncing back, O's Mora finds handle at 3rd

Here's the scoop: After rough start, new position fitting like a glove

September 10, 2004|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Orioles bench and infield coach Sam Perlozzo was not asking Melvin Mora to become the next Brooks Robinson.

He didn't even set the bar at winning a Gold Glove.

With Mora's error total mounting and doubt creeping in earlier this season that the one-time utility player could handle being the Orioles' everyday third baseman, Perlozzo simplified things.

"Once he started making mistakes, I sat him down and said, `Look, our goal here is to not worry about how many errors you have at the end of the year. But when we get down to the end of the season, we can look at each other and say, `You know what, Melvin Mora is a pretty good third baseman,'" Perlozzo said. "And I think we are ahead of schedule. I think he is a pretty good third baseman right now."

The numbers support Perlozzo's claim.

Since May 21, Mora had the highest fielding percentage among American League third basemen (.977) through Tuesday. He had five errors during that period, tied with the Toronto Blue Jays' Eric Hinske for fewest in the league at that position.

"You just get comfortable and you practice," said Mora, who made his first error in 30 games in the second inning of Wednesday's 9-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins, but did make two sparkling defensive plays later in the game. "It's not easy when you start at a new position. It takes practice. You practice, you get better. It's just like hitting."

Mora's 18 errors are second among AL third basemen to the Cleveland Indians' Casey Blake, who has 24. His fielding percentage is a pedestrian .944, but those numbers are hurt by Mora's eight errors in April, including seven in his first 11 games.

Asked last week whether he was pleased with the progress Mora has made, manager Lee Mazzilli said, "Absolutely."

He also sought to remove the thought that the Orioles would pursue a free-agent third baseman - Adrian Beltre from the Los Angeles Dodgers, perhaps - and move Mora back to the outfield, where he has played often with the Orioles since being acquired from the New York Mets for Mike Bordick in 2000.

"How many better third basemen are out there?" Mazzilli said. "The kid is hitting about .350. He's done a great job all around."

Hitting has never been the question for Mora, whose .343 batting average, 23 home runs and 92 RBIs have forged his reputation as one of the AL's top offensive players.

Last year's .317 average earned Mora, the Orioles' lone 2003 All-Star, a three-year, $10.5 million contract during the offseason.

Athleticism and versatility - and a lack of options in the minor leagues - are what earned Mora the job as the starting third baseman when the team decided not to pursue incumbent starter Tony Batista, who eventually headed to the Montreal Expos.

Mora, who has played 192 career games as a shortstop, made only seven appearances at third base before this year and none since 2000. He hadn't played the position regularily since 1994, when he was in the Houston Astros' system.

Perlozzo said the Orioles foresaw some growing pains, but they got a little more ache than they expected. Mora made errors on the first balls hit to him in intrasquad, exhibition and regular-season play.

"I never thought Melvin would start out that bad," Perlozzo said. "I thought he was a good enough athlete where he wouldn't have this much trouble."

Maybe it's selective memory, but Mora, 32, doesn't remember his struggles. He said he doesn't deal in the negative, anyway.

"You just have to go to work - nothing else to it," said Mora, who made just two errors in 96 games last year, playing mostly in the outfield. "You can't try to do too much either. Things aren't just going to happen."

He said his cleaner second-half fielding record this season is a result of the time spent taking ground balls before games. However, at Perlozzo's suggestion, Mora has made adjustments. He switched to a smaller glove, and has altered his setup position, enabling him to be ready sooner for a ground ball or a line drive.

Said shortstop Miguel Tejada: "He's made himself into a good third baseman."

There was a time when Mora would exit the clubhouse and study the lineup card that is posted outside. Was it shortstop? Outfield? Possibly second base?

Those days appear to be over.

"I don't want to put over-expectations on the guy, but I think he is playing a pretty darn good third base," Perlozzo said. "If he can come out and have two halves like he has had in this half, he's going to win a Gold Glove."

NOTE: Triple-A Ottawa pitching coach Steve McCatty has been added to Mazzilli's staff for the remainder of the season.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: New York Yankees

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Yankees' Javier Vazquez (13-8, 4.59) vs. Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (11-8, 3.69)

Catching on

Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora's error total at third base has been on the decline after a shaky start.

Month Games Errors

April 21 8

May 26 5

June 15 2

July 16 1

August 28 1

September 8 1

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