Fiorentino making a 2nd impression

Three-week stay with Orioles last season whets outfielder's appetite for the big leagues

March 04, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

JUPITER, Fla. -- His teammates still call him Screech, a reference to the slight and nerdy character in the popular 1990s sitcom Saved by the Bell. However, Orioles outfielder Jeff Fiorentino no longer bears such a striking resemblance to that character, aside from his curly coif.

The wide-eyed expression he wore for three weeks last May has been replaced by a confident smile, and his physique has been strengthened by 12 pounds of muscle. After his surprise promotion last year, Fiorentino looked more like a visitor who had wandered into the Orioles' clubhouse and stayed for three weeks. Those days, however, are gone.

"I know what it takes," said Fiorentino, who hit a two-run double on Thursday in the Orioles' exhibition season-opening loss to the Florida Marlins, and was 0-for-1 with a walk in a 5-4 loss to the Marlins yesterday.

"I know the level that these guys play at, so I know where I have to get to. Before it was really sort of up in the air. I imagined or pictured what it would take to play at the major league level. Now that I have been there, I know what it is going to take for me to get back."

Entering his first spring training in a major league camp, Fiorentino, 22, is realistic about his chances of making the Orioles' Opening Day roster. The Orioles have a glut of veteran outfielders, and his close friend, Nick Markakis, is ahead of Fiorentino in the club's prospect pecking order.

Fiorentino is likely headed to Double-A, where he'll probably be the Bowie Baysox's starting center fielder.

"It's going to be a long shot for me to be with the team this year, but I'm not worried about it," said Fiorentino, the Orioles' third-round selection in the 2004 draft and the first position player from that draft to reach the majors. "I'm 22 years old. I still have my best years ahead of me. If they don't believe I'm ready this year, I'll be ready for them next year."

Fiorentino was called up from Single-A Frederick on May 11 last year. The Orioles had lost Luis Matos to an injury, and manager Lee Mazzilli wanted to bring in a good defensive outfielder from the farm system. Fiorentino got the call.

In his first major league at-bat, the left-handed hitter singled off All-Star Jon Garland. He wound up getting hits in his first four trips to the plate, but as time wore on, it became clear that Fiorentino was overmatched.

A 5-for-34 skid prompted his return to Single-A Frederick. And when Fiorentino batted just .225 for the Keys in his first two months back in the minors, the whispers started that his confidence was shaken by his major league experience.

"There is a shock in the difference in taking batting practice at Camden Yards, seeing that ball fly over the right-field fence. Then, you go to Frederick and the same fly balls don't reach the fence," said Orioles minor league director David Stockstill. "There is a shock factor in every aspect of the major leagues compared to A-ball."

Fiorentino, however, rebounded and hit .347 with 12 home runs and 33 RBIs in 32 games in August. He finished the season with a .286 average, 22 homers, 66 RBIs and 12 steals, a key component of the Keys' Carolina League championship team.

"I still don't believe [the slump] had anything to do with the big leagues," said Fiorentino, who hit .250 with one homer and five RBIs in 44 at-bats with the Orioles. "I've had slumps before. That one just lasted a little bit longer and it took me a while to get out of."

As he looks back on his time with the Orioles last season, Fiorentino, who worked out as much as 2 1/2 hours a day this offseason, most fondly remembers the support of his teammates, including Miguel Tejada, who bought the outfielder a suit to wear for his first road trip. His time in the majors helped, not hindered, his progress, Fiorentino believes.

"When people say you rush prospects, I don't think you can," Fiorentino said. "If a player is going to go up there and it's going to ruin the rest of his career because he had a bad experience, then he's probably not going to make the big leagues, anyway.

"Baseball is all about adjustments. If I can't learn to make the adjustments, I am not going to be able to make the adjustments back in the big leagues, anyway."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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