O's J. Lopez works from ground up at new position

March 02, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- The sessions usually last about 30 minutes. An Orioles coach will inch about 5 yards away from the batting cage, pick up a fungo bat and drive ground balls, one after the other, skimming along the choppy dirt.

Javy Lopez's outstretched glove, a first baseman's mitt, awaits. On most days, before several sets of critical eyes, Lopez handles most of the ground balls, displaying solid hands and athleticism. Other days, like yesterday for example, he struggles, looking very much like a player who has been a catcher for parts of 14 major league seasons and has played exactly two innings of first base in the big leagues.

It is far too early to judge Lopez's transition to first base, necessitated by the Orioles' offseason signing of catcher Ramon Hernandez. But starting with today's exhibition opener against the Florida Marlins and continuing for the next month - including his time as DH/first baseman for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic - Lopez's learning curve will be put to the test.

"Tomorrow is when I realize how nervous or how relaxed I am going to be," said Lopez, 35, who will start at first base today before leaving the team for the World Baseball Classic. "The only thing I have to keep in mind is nothing should change. I am going to keep doing what I've been doing. It's no different."

What Lopez is doing is not unusual. Several players have done it, including most recently, the New York Mets' Mike Piazza, whose first base experiment was an unmitigated disaster, and thus scrapped quickly. Lopez is more athletic than Piazza, but has still looked uncomfortable at times during workouts.

"I think I can get a lot better," said Lopez, who will work with Puerto Rican manager Jose Oquendo, who helped Albert Pujols move from third to first base. "It's all a matter of practicing and getting more comfortable at the position. I know there's a lot more for me to learn. But the good thing is I feel I can do it.

"I am totally happy [for] the fact that I am going to be playing first base and not DH. I'd prefer playing in the outfield if I have to, rather than DH."

Orioles coaches have seen enough over the past two weeks to think Lopez can make the transition.

"There's always going to be questions," Orioles first base and infield coach Dave Cash said. "People are always going to ask questions, especially when you're making the transition from one place to another. The first thing most people say is `he can't do it.' We're trying to prove people wrong in that regard."

Cash is among a number of coaches who have worked with Lopez on a daily basis. It's not uncommon to see two or three coaches around him as he fields grounders, giving him instruction or encouragement. The toughest part, Cash said, is to not overload Lopez with too much information.

Yesterday, Lopez had one of his poorest days. Several of instructor Bien Figueroa's grounders got past him, including three straight at one point, and he also dropped several balls while moving them from glove to hand.

Third base coach Tom Trebelhorn, Cash and shortstop Miguel Tejada, who talked to Lopez about where to throw the ball while turning a double play, took turns advising him.

But Lopez never appeared to get discouraged, even telling Figueroa at one point, "I am not done yet," when the instructor stopped hitting him grounders. He also rebounded to make two nice plays in the afternoon's simulated scrimmage.

"We're trying to take some baby steps and see if we can get him to be an adequate first baseman," Cash said. "It's really hard to tell until you start playing because practice is one thing and game speed is another. It's hard to speculate on it now because he's so early."

Cash has praised Lopez for his hands and his movement around the bag, but said that the veteran has his "work cut out for him" in learning where to be on relays and cutoffs, and what base to throw to on bunts.

"I realize how hard it is to play first base," Lopez said. "I thought it was a lot easier position to play. You need to be involved in so many different plays. It's a challenge for me and I like challenges."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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