O's nucleus suddenly looking bit unstable

April 26, 2007|By RICK MAESE

In the fifth inning last night, with two outs and a runner on first, Brian Roberts swung at a high fastball for strike three. He flung his bat toward the dugout and spiked his helmet near home plate. For Roberts, the frustration was contained in a single moment and one tough at-bat. But elsewhere, for those who pull the strings, the disappointment must be mounting.

The first sign that the Orioles had some semblance of direction was when the front office identified a nucleus of talent and moved quickly to secure what it hoped was the team's immediate future. And to its credit, the team's brass executed, extending the contracts of Roberts, Melvin Mora and Jay Gibbons, signing Ramon Hernandez and knowing that Miguel Tejada was already locked in through the 2009 season. With a few dollar signs and a few signatures, the foundation had been laid, right?

But just a few weeks into the season, what was to be reliable is instead volatile, and what once looked like a strong nucleus doesn't feel near as stable as it should.

The uncertainty was never more apparent than this week, when defensive miscues by the trio of infielders were directly linked to two losses to Oakland. Only two members of the nucleus were even in the starting lineup for last night's 6-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox. And already in this young season, some of the sagging offensive numbers aren't just reason for concern - they're becoming cause for alarm.

These were to be the known quantities, and everyone else the Orioles signed to field and bat around them was expected to complement this group. But thus far, with the exception of Tejada, their performances have not justified the lofty contracts given by the Orioles.

Consider:

After posting good numbers last season, Hernandez has yet to make an appearance this year, nursing a strained left oblique.

Mora, who sat on the bench yesterday for the first time this season, has seen his offensive numbers continue to wilt since signing a three-year extension last May. This year, he's hitting .241 with four home runs and 15 RBIs. On Tuesday he had a costly error, just one day after laying down a questionable ninth-inning bunt that stranded a runner at third. Maybe worse, he shrugged off his decision to bunt and said the run didn't score because teammate Corey Patterson wasn't expecting him to lay the ball down.

Gibbons, who also was on the bench last night, is hitting .217 with no homers and seven RBIs. He's hitless in his past 13 at-bats.

Last night, Tejada hit his first home run since Opening Night, his second of the year. Though his power numbers are off, he's still the Orioles' leading hitter. Defensively, though, he seemed to draw the ire of manager Sam Perlozzo on Tuesday. Fielding a grounder, Roberts made the questionable decision to flip the ball to second for an attempted forceout, but the runner beat Tejada to the bag. "If we had somebody covering, he would have been out," Perlozzo said after the 4-2 loss.

And Roberts, who signed a two-year extension just last month, hasn't been showing the spark and energy that's made him a fan favorite in Baltimore. Hitting leadoff, he's batting .231 thus far and was 0-for-4 last night, stranding four runners.

Entering this season, all but Gibbons had previously been All-Stars. These were to be the known quantities; the ones Perlozzo could count on from night to night. Instead, he's having to rely on others in key situations, in many cases picking up the slack. It's not supposed to be this way.

The Orioles decided these were the players worth building the team around, and they laid out the money to back up that sentiment. But this nucleus - particularly Mora, Roberts and Gibbons - needs to uphold its end of the deal. Contract extensions come laden with expectations.

"It's not a negative pressure, though," Gibbons said. "It's comforting to know that they want you here, that you have some security. It makes you want to go out and show them that you're worth it."

The hope, of course, is that we're talking about a couple of sluggish starts, that April is but an appetizer course for the rest of the season. But can you trust that this is the reality of the situation?

While Mora's numbers and bat speed might have peaked three years ago and Gibbons could spend the entire season searching for his role, Roberts and Tejada should be as good as most middle infields in baseball. And more so than just about any player in the clubhouse, this group has the ability to unite or divide the team. There's no room for stare-downs or blame-games or succumbing to disillusionment. All four are supposed to be key components of this ballclub.

They were signed to be the foundation for the future. And though on paper we can still call them the nucleus, on the field it's been difficult to watch them early this season and still make that claim.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

To read Rick Maese's blog, go to baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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