Orioles looking pretty good for those stealing early signs

The Kickoff

March 05, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- These are better days at the Orioles' spring training complex, and I'd have to say it's about time.

The hitters are hitting. The team's combined batting average through the first four exhibition games is an encouraging .314.

The pitchers are pitching. The combined ERA over the same period is an equally encouraging 2.80.

And, just as an added bonus, no member of the team has been mentioned in connection with any steroid investigations in nearly six months.

I don't know how you can call that anything but progress.

Four games in is probably a little early to get too excited, though I could swear I saw Nestor Aparicio in an orange T-shirt trying to lead a platoon of WNST listeners back into Fort Lauderdale Stadium in the fifth inning. The team definitely is better than it was a year ago and it's nice to see the Orioles come out swinging even if it is just the Grapefruit League.

Right now, the ball apparently looks like a grapefruit to most of the guys in the projected regular-season lineup.

"The A-team guys are swinging it pretty well," manager Sam Perlozzo said after yesterday's 6-3 victory over the New York Mets. "They are going about it as professionals."

I need to stop right here and point out that there is a new attitude in this year's camp and it starts with Perlozzo, whose no-nonsense approach has been so infectious that I saw first baseman Kevin Millar trying not to smile during pre-game infield drills yesterday.

Tough Sammy spent the offseason reflecting on what happened in 2006 (70 wins, fourth place; Ravens went 13-3) and decided that the status quo wasn't going to fly. He came to spring training determined to change the mind-set that has contributed to the Orioles' long string of sub-.500 seasons.

So far, so good. The Orioles have won three of their first four exhibition games, and Sam still refuses to laugh at any of my jokes. Yesterday's game was the first in which the team failed to reach double figures in hits.

"I think we're more balanced," Perlozzo said. "We have quality hitters all the way through the lineup. We can go left hand, right hand and move people around in the lineup if we want, and I think we'll be good against both righties and lefties."

He lost me with all the right-hand/left-hand stuff. I'm so bad at keeping that kind of thing straight that I mistook Kurt Birkins for Chris Ray in the ninth inning yesterday. I tried to blame it on the fact that I wasn't wearing my glasses, until the irritating reporter from MLB.com pointed out that Birkins was throwing with his left hand, something Ray doesn't do very often.

I hate know-it-alls.

It was particularly great to see Melvin Mora swinging the bat with authority. He hit two long doubles yesterday that might have been home runs if the wind wasn't blowing in hard from center field.

Mora's numbers dropped off in the second half of last year, but he bristles at the notion that he didn't have a good offensive season. The third baseman set personal highs for games played and at-bats and had his second-highest career totals in runs and hits. His power numbers declined, but if yesterday's performance is any indication, he can still put a charge into the ball.

Jay Payton (.667), Corey Patterson (.571), Nick Markakis (.500), Aubrey Huff (.500) and Brian Roberts (.350) also have gotten off to fast starts at the plate, which may not mean a thing a month from now, but early success is a lot better than the alternative.

The same goes for the pitching staff, which has featured scoreless outings from every starter except Steve Trachsel, who gave up three runs in his first inning after mistakenly assuming that he had signed with last year's team when he saw Perlozzo accidentally smile in the clubhouse.

These are better days, indeed, but turning this team around is still going to be a serious challenge.

So far, so good.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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