Patterson hits comfort zone with O's

Center fielder thriving in second spring with team

February 26, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- It was not in between the lines where Orioles center fielder Corey Patterson noticed a difference. Sure, he enjoyed each of his career-high 45 stolen bases last season. The 16 home runs were also nice, as were the running or diving catches he made that placed Patterson on the Orioles' highlight reel seemingly on a nightly basis.

But the most important thing was when he left the ballpark last year, whether he had just gone 0-for-4 or had two hits and two steals, he was content with himself. It was quite a contrast from a year earlier, when his struggles as a Chicago Cub morphed him at times into a person he didn't like.

"I got real frustrated with things, and I beat myself up," Patterson said. "But, last year, I really tried to stay positive and to be prepared. Whether I am hitting .200 or .320, my numbers aren't going to dictate who I am as a person. In '05, that is kind of what happened. But, last year, I was able to separate it. When I was here at the field, I really concentrated and got my work in. When it was over, I enjoyed my life and my family and friends."

In his second spring training with the Orioles, Patterson is considerably more comfortable in his surroundings. Manager Sam Perlozzo has noticed Patterson, whom Perlozzo described as tentative at times last spring, is doing everything from shagging fly balls to taking batting practice with more conviction and confidence.

And after barely speaking to his teammates last spring, Patterson is now joking with them, along with the coaches. He said it feels as if he has been in an Orioles uniform for "four or five years."

"I think you can see when guys get comfortable, when they start to open up and their personalities come out," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "In spring training last year, he never said anything. But once he got to play every day last year, he just really blossomed. He is quiet, but he is always happy. You could probably get everybody in here to say that he's one of the best teammates that they've ever had."

When the Orioles acquired Patterson in January 2006 from the Cubs in exchange for two low-level minor leaguers, they were hopeful that a change of scenery from Chicago, where he was booed loudly and even sent to the minors at one point in 2005, would do him some good.

The trade turned out to be a steal for the Orioles, who watched Patterson ultimately wrestle the starting center-field job away from the underachieving Luis Matos, hit .276 (61 points higher than he hit in 2005 for the Cubs) with 16 home runs, 53 RBIs and 45 steals in 54 attempts, and play standout defense. Those numbers came in 135 games, as Patterson missed more than two weeks with a sprained right shoulder and played sparingly in early April.

"I don't know if I can ask him to do more than that," Perlozzo said. "If he does it again, I'd be tickled to death."

However, one of the things that Patterson, 27, didn't do - hit left-handers successfully - was one of the reasons the Orioles signed free agent Jay Payton, a right-hander who can play all three outfield positions. Though Payton figures to play mostly in left field, Patterson came into camp knowing he needs to show he can hit left-handers to remain the Orioles' everyday center fielder.

"If I start to worry about that, I lose focus on what I have to do," said Patterson, a career .229 hitter against left-handers who hit .207 against them last season. "Jay's a great player. I am glad that he is on our team. He's going to help this team out tremendously. I am really pulling for him just like I pull for the rest of my teammates.

"But things have a way of working themselves out. I am at a point of my career where I am here to have fun, to sit back and enjoy my teammates and definitely work hard. Last year was a little different, trying to get re-established in a new organization. But, now, I am relaxed and not really worried about who is going to be in the lineup or who is going to play in what position."

Though upgrading the lineup against left-handed pitching was one of the Orioles' priorities this season, vice president Jim Duquette said Payton's signing doesn't mean Patterson will sit against all left-handers.

"Against some of the tougher lefties, you may not see him in there all the time, but he still adds an element to our offense - the speed factor that is an important part of our team game," Duquette said. "We also want him in there because of his defense."

Patterson will be eligible for free agency after this season, and the free-agent class of center fielders could include Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves, Torii Hunter of the Minnesota Twins and Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. Wanting to see if Patterson is able to string together back-to-back solid seasons, Duquette said the Orioles and Patterson's agent, Scott Boras, will not have any contract talks until after the season.

"I'd definitely love to play here, especially with all of the guys that we have here now," Patterson said. "But obviously, I am at a point where this is my free-agent year. I really don't want to focus on that. Whenever that situation comes up, we'll address it then."

Patterson said he still has plenty to improve upon.

"Last year was probably the best year that I had," he said. "I was more pleased with myself mentally. It didn't matter what the results were and what the numbers were, but I was able to maintain that consistent approach. I definitely want to build on that."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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