Big swings for Jones

Center fielder has had many ups, downs, but talent, attitude have won him praise

May 13, 2008|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun reporter

The frustration from one of the most difficult days of his young baseball life still lingered April 13 when Adam Jones boarded the Orioles' team charter for the relatively short flight from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Baltimore. Just a couple of hours earlier against the Tampa Bay Rays, Jones struck out in all four of his at-bats, the humbling feat known as the "golden sombrero."

His performance lowered his average to .211 and triggered talk that perhaps the talented outfielder, 22, would be better served at Triple-A. Jones made himself think about something else entirely.

"It was crazy, but one thing that really helped me was on the plane, I got to sit in the cockpit," Jones recalled. "I was sitting there talking to the pilots and stuff, and for some reason at 39,000 feet, looking down at Jacksonville [Fla.] and Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., I totally cleared my head."

The next day, Jones reported to Camden Yards for early batting practice and then went 3-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base in the Orioles' victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. In the 48-hour span, the Orioles saw essentially what they expected to see from Jones this season -- days of great struggle and others of great promise.

"I pushed him as hard as I pushed anybody that day, and then he went out and was a big factor in the game," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "That speaks volumes about his makeup and character. That's the kind of young man that turns into a winner. That's what we're trying to put together here: 25 winners."

Jones, the centerpiece of the Orioles' return from the Seattle Mariners in February's trade of pitcher Erik Bedard, and one of the key cogs of the organization's rebuilding efforts, has had an uneven first seven weeks with his new team. However, he has earned praise from teammates for handling his success and struggles in the same manner.

On the team's 10-game road trip that ended Sunday, Jones went 3-for-32 with eight strikeouts, his average falling from .265 to .223. However, Jones also has played a dynamic center field, leading teammate Brian Roberts to say he would never have guessed Jones was a shortstop in the minor leagues.

Club president Andy MacPhail, knowing Jones had just 139 major league at-bats before this year, said the club fully expected the player would go through rough times. The Orioles recognize the importance of sticking with Jones and allowing him to make adjustments that he could make only at this level.

"It's been pretty much what we anticipated," MacPhail said. "One of the attributes that our scouts and our homework revealed about Adam is that he's the type of guy that has a short memory. That's why people don't feel like he's going to struggle too mightily. Even if he has a couple of [hitless] days, he comes back on the third day with the same attitude you need to have to succeed."

To his credit, Jones has seemingly not let his struggles bother him, choosing to deal with his frustrations internally. He has been a regular when the team takes extra batting practice, and before games, he often sits with coaches John Shelby and Juan Samuel or veteran players to talk about certain aspects of the game.

"He works and he listens, and for a young guy, that's all you can ask for," outfielder Jay Payton said. " ... He's always smiling, always joking, always talking, and if he's wondering about something, he's not afraid to ask. That's a good thing. He doesn't think he knows everything."

Said Shelby, who has worked with Jones extensively on his defense and base running: "He's thrown to the wrong base a couple of times, but when you tell him, he listens and he takes it into the game. That's the one thing I love about him. He takes things to heart."

There is plenty Jones still has to learn on his own. Pitchers have pounded him with off-speed stuff and then elevated fastballs later in the count to take advantage of his aggressiveness. Jones has had trouble laying off certain pitches, and several at-bats have ended with meek swings at balls out of the strike zone.

"When I first got called up, it was fastballs every at-bat," said Jones, who has struck out 31 times in 130 at-bats this season. "But I'm seeing a lot of 2-0 off-speed pitches. Even from a veteran guy like [the Los Angeles Angels' Jon] Garland. I had never faced him, but he threw me a 2-0 slider that I've never seen before. I'm still trying to make my adjustments."

One scout, who projects Jones as a future All-Star, said his struggles are normal and part of a young player's learning curve.

"He has no real flaws," the scout said. "He will eventually hit 20-plus homers. He actually does a solid job identifying pitches and has good offensive discipline for a [youngster]. His bat will come -- give him a couple of years. Meanwhile, he still contributes enough offensively while playing plus defense. He reminds me very much of Torii Hunter at the same stage."

Said Jones: "The biggest achievement that I'm happy about is even though I'm making outs, I'm not taking it out with me to the field. I remember when I used to play shortstop, I'd strike out and then I'd go out to the field, and on the first ball hit to me, I'd throw it away. I'm just trying to be even keel, and I want everybody to know if I'm going good or bad, you can tell that I'm having fun."

So are the Orioles, who have repeatedly praised Jones for the way he has handled all the expectations. Manager Dave Trembley has made an effort to not overreact whether Jones is doing well or poorly. He is going to be in the lineup either way.

"He's nowhere near his potential," Trembley said. "This guy is going to be a very good player. He just needs some time for his skills to develop, but you can see it. It's all there."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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