Questions greet O's returnees

Hernandez, J. Lopez and Matos have much to do in little time after weeks away at World Classic

March 18, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Handshakes. Hugs. Happy hellos.

Yesterday felt like the first day of camp for the Orioles as Ramon Hernandez, Javy Lopez and Luis Matos returned from stints at the World Baseball Classic.

"Javy, Javy, Javy," chanted third baseman Melvin Mora as Lopez strode in.

"It's like a new spring training," Matos said. "You come back and say hi to everybody. It's exciting."

But all three players return to questions. Can starting catcher Hernandez develop a rapport with the team's starting pitchers in his truncated run of spring games? Can Lopez assuage fears that he can't handle first base? Can Matos compete for the center-field job, having ceded two weeks of competition to Corey Patterson?

Unlike the other two, Hernandez faces no uncertainty about his position. He just has to settle into the spot that requires more communication than any other on the field.

"I mean, it's kind of a negative thing in some aspects, not being able to throw to your primary catcher," said starter Kris Benson.

"We haven't really been in a situation where we're trying to figure out what each other is thinking in a game situation," Benson said. "I think for any pitcher, it's pretty important to be in sync with his catcher so the game goes more quickly and there's not a lot of shaking off."

Benson said he's eager to work with Hernandez over the next two weeks.

"I've heard nothing but positive things about him," he said. "I know he prepares himself."

Hernandez said he will spend much of the time talking with the starters. "I think it'll be enough time," he said.

Manager Sam Perlozzo said he isn't worried.

"I just think he's a good enough catcher, a smart catcher," Perlozzo said. "I don't think it's going to be a problem for him."

Hernandez actually faced one of his pitchers, Daniel Cabrera, in the Classic. He hit the Dominican's fastball better than most, sending one fly deep into the outfield.

"If he pitches like that here, he will win at least 18 to 20 games," Hernandez said.

The catcher, who started yesterday, was the first returnee to enter the clubhouse and received many big hugs and backslaps. He quickly sat in a semicircle with his Venezuelan countryman, Mora, and several other players. They recounted the Classic with animated gestures.

"You never get the same excitement as when you're playing for your country," Hernandez said.

Last season's catcher, Lopez, started at first yesterday against the Nationals and Perlozzo said he expects the veteran to play the majority of games at his new position. He said he won't need to see much to feel confident about the switch.

"If he comes out of the shoot and plays well for a week, that's a pretty good indication," Perlozzo said. "I expect him to do very well myself."

Lopez didn't yesterday. The first ground ball of the game skipped off his glove. In the second inning, he made a bad throw on a would-be pickoff that cost the team an out. In the sixth, he dropped a throw to first.

Perlozzo quickly pulled the longtime catcher aside after the bad throw to explain how he should have handled the pickoff. He said after the 12-4 win that Lopez might need 75 games to get comfortable at first. But he applauded his star's willingness to ask questions after making mistakes.

"The thing I like about Javy is that he's dedicated to being good," he said.

Lopez started at first for Puerto Rico. He also batted .313 with a home run as his country advanced to the second round of play before falling to Cuba.

He too raved about the experience.

"It was like the last game of the World Series every game," he said. "Very intense, very dramatic."

He said the Puerto Rican coaches spent much of the two weeks working one-on-one with him. He said he's more comfortable at the new position than before he left.

"I still need games to get more comfortable," he said, but "it put me in a better situation."

Matos said he was impressed watching Lopez play first for Puerto Rico.

"[Manager] Jose Oquendo said he was playing very good defense," Matos recalled. "He likes it. That's the best thing. If he likes it, he's going to put more interest into the position."

Matos may have had the most to lose by playing in the Classic. He was even at best in his competition with Patterson when he departed. But he said he had no regrets about playing for Puerto Rico.

"I'm ready," he said. "I'm going to play today and I have what, like two weeks to do my thing and they'll decide what they're going to decide."

Matos got on base in half of his 12 plate appearances and scored four runs for Puerto Rico. He said those at-bats were just as helpful as spring appearances.

But Perlozzo didn't see them. Instead, he's watched Patterson cover the outfield ably and hit sharply in recent games.

"Sure, his at-bats were as good," the manager said of Matos. "It's just how many he had. ... He's probably about 20 short of what he'd have had if he'd been here."

Matos started in center and lined a single to right in the first inning and an RBI triple to left in the sixth.

He said questions aside, he wouldn't give up the Classic experience.

"Of course man, it was amazing," he said. "The crowd, just the whole series, it was amazing. It was always packed. Lots of emotion."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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