Newhan, Markakis are outfield answer

April 15, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

After looking almost hopelessly muddled until now, the Orioles' outfield situation suddenly is as clear as a blue morning sky.

David Newhan has to play every day, or very nearly. And Nick Markakis should, too.

There. That wasn't so tough.

Put Jay Gibbons in right field alongside Newhan and Markakis - the unlikeliest of alliances a month ago - in left and center.

If that leaves Luis Matos, Corey Patterson and Jeff Conine scrounging for at-bats, well, those three are hitting a combined . 105 (6-for-57) through the season's first 11 games, so they can't beef.

Even if he had hotter options, Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo would be foolish not to use Newhan, 32, who has done nothing but hit all season. And given where the Orioles probably will end up this year (hint: not in first place), furthering the development of young talent such as Markakis, 22, really is what their 2006 is all about, even if they're not willing to admit it.

Newhan and Markakis each hit a home run last night, underscoring the fact that they belong in the lineup.

The outfield situation was hardly so clear this spring when Newhan and Markakis were just names on a long list of options that included Gibbons, Matos, Patterson, Conine, Kevin Millar, Richard Hidalgo and, it seemed, everyone this side of Disco Dan Ford. It was hard to see where things might lead (other than putting Gibbons in right), and Perlozzo admitted not long before Opening Day that he was unsure.

Newhan was surely an afterthought at first, coming off a 2005 season in which he played sporadically, lost more than 100 points on his average (to .202 from .311 in 2004) and landed in the minors, much to his dismay. But after adjusting his batting stroke over the winter, he has played his way back onto the field by batting .408 in the Grapefruit League and . 308 for the season through last night, driving the ball and using his speed near the top of Perlozzo's batting order.

"He's swinging the bat, hustling, giving us a little energy, sparking us a little bit," Perlozzo said. "He's really done enough, for me, to be playing."

Newhan was in the lineup for the fifth time in the past six games last night.

"I think I had 18 at-bats in all of last April. I already have more this April," Newhan said last night. "Last year, I didn't know what my role was. Now, whether or not I'm playing, I feel like a part of things. It's not a trial when I'm out there.

"My attitude coming in [to the season] was to try to play as well as I could, and I figured that would be good enough for a job somewhere in the big leagues. I'm glad things are going well."

Markakis isn't on the same kind of run - he is hitting . 241 through last night - but he has started seven of 11 games as the organization continues to take a hard look at its top-rated prospect, who had never played above Double A.

The returns, predictably, are somewhat mixed. His defense is more than adequate, although he is likely destined to play the corner outfield positions rather than the middle, where he was last night. Offensively, his knowledge of the strike zone is mature beyond his years (the fact that he walked in his first three major league at-bats says it all) and he is hanging on at the plate as - according to Perlozzo - opposing pitchers begin to come inside on him.

"He's a battler," Perlozzo said. "I think we all knew there'd be a few shortcomings we would need to identify and correct. He's smart enough to make a few of the changes on his own. And he's certainly talented enough."

Whenever possible, the Orioles need to give young, homegrown players such as Markakis, closer Chris Ray and reliever Sendy Rleal fullblown chances to make it in the majors; there's a direct correlation between developing real contributors and bettering your future.

That probably means deducting at-bats from Matos and Patterson, who had figured to get significant playing time this season. But this is the major leagues, and you have to produce, and Newhan delivered again last night, and Markakis is the kind of long-range hedge the Orioles have long needed to play more often.

Asked last night if Patterson, M-0who has only 10 at-bats this season, should feel like a backup, manager Sam Perlozzo said, "I hope not. It's my job to find at-bats for him."

But it's also his job to do what's best for the team, and in the outfield, as things stand, his decisions suddenly are a lot easier than he thought they would be.

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