Long Grass A Growing Concern

April 28, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

So far, the Orioles have lived up to their offensive potential, but wasn't this also supposed to be a much-improved defensive team? Weren't we led to expect a little more splendor in the grass?

The arrival of free-agent shortstop Cesar Izturis was expected to solidify the defense up the middle, and speedy Felix Pie was supposed to combine with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis to turn the O's outfield into a no-fly zone. The reality has been much different, with Pie struggling to get acclimated to left field while Izturis and several teammates are having trouble adapting to one of the slowest infields in the major leagues.

Going into Monday night's game, the Orioles had allowed 20 unearned runs, an average of one for every game of the young season. The next-closest major league team is the Washington Nationals with 13, so you're talking some proud company. The O's don't lead the majors in errors; they rank fourth with 14.

"It seems like whenever we make an error, it has cost us a bunch of runs," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "They have made us pay for them, and they have become magnified."

Roberts, however, is not all that surprised that a defensive alignment that was expected to be pretty good has hit some rough patches.

"Felix is in a new position," Roberts said. "You're missing Melvin Mora - Wiggy [Ty Wigginton] is doing fine, but Melvin is a terrific third baseman - and Aubrey [Huff] hasn't played every day at first base in a while."

Then there is the thing that everybody talks about but nobody in the organization wants to address. The beautiful new infield, with its cool, checkerboard mow pattern, might be the biggest contributor to the club's erratic defensive performance.

"It's a big adjustment from spring training," Huff said. "In Florida, the grass was a lot shorter. Fielding is about timing, too. The grass is so thick here that a ball is scorched and you think you have to dive for it and you don't because the grass slows the ball down so much. You've just got to remember the grass here is the longest grass in baseball."

Which brings us to the great philosophical divide between what's good for the pitchers and what's good for everybody else. The thick infield is supposed to help the pitchers because it keeps ground balls from getting through to the outfield. You'd think that would be good for the defense, but it's not that simple. If you saw Friday night's loss to the Rangers, you may remember the play when Izturis stumbled while charging a seemingly routine bouncer to short. He threw too late to first and cost the team an important run in a one-run loss. Izturis also mishandled a potential double play Sunday because he was forced to rush. Both balls, according to fellow infielders, would have been easy plays on the average major league infield.

"For me, it's fine," Roberts said. "For the left side of the infield, it's different. You don't have the same time you normally would, so you start rushing things. I think it affects double plays a lot. It also makes it tough on the pivot guy with the runners bearing down on you."

Izturis isn't making excuses. He's a Gold Glove shortstop and he said he'll adjust, though it would be easier on a more consistent track.

"You have to get used to it," he said. "But if they cut it a little shorter, I think it would be better for everybody."

Before you start questioning the competence of the grounds crew, decisions on the height or type of grass used on the infield come from the stadium operations department, which gets its marching orders from the front office. It's probably fair to assume the team wanted the infield slower in the hope that it would aid the starting rotation, but it apparently isn't working out that way.

"It hurts everybody," catcher Gregg Zaun said. "The ground around home plate is soft and the grass is high, so you can make great pitches and the ball isn't hit hard enough to turn the double play."

Of course, that will affect opponents, too, but since the Orioles are one of the best hitting teams in the league now, the impact of the slower infield on the offense also is magnified.

"We're going to lose some hits," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "If it helps our team overall, that's OK, but right now we're losing one to two hits per game."

Manager Dave Trembley is convinced it will even out over time. The defense has had trouble adjusting to the infield, but there are 142 games to go and the numbers figure to moderate over time.

"I honestly believe before the season's over, our defense will save us and be a factor in us winning a lot of games," Trembley said. "The proof is in the pudding and over the course of the season - not over two weeks - and we feel the defense will be there."

Listen to Peter Schmuck weeknights at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM).

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