With Roberts absent, Orioles' lineup is stagnant

March 20, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, FLA. — While many of his Orioles teammates boarded the bus that would take them to Clearwater for Friday night's exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Brian Roberts headed out to the back fields at the Ed Smith Stadium complex to resume baseball activities after a week of rest and treatment on his sore lower back.

Maybe in a few days, he'll be able to think about making his first appearance in an exhibition game.

Maybe a few days after that, the Orioles will get a booster shot in their batting order that helps as much as the epidural injection Roberts received on his recent trip to see back specialist Dr. Lee Riley in Baltimore.

Roberts still doesn't figure to take a lot of long bus rides this spring, but everyone knows the Orioles will be a much better team when the second baseman is along for the ride.

"Brian is our table-setter," manager Dave Trembley said. "He's one of the premier leadoff hitters in baseball. He's the igniter on this team. When he is at the top of the lineup, everything falls into place a little better. No question, we're a much better team."

What Trembley won't say is that Roberts' absence is a big reason the Orioles have not been able to develop much offensive chemistry this spring. The batting order was beefed up over the winter with the signing of free agents Miguel Tejada and Garrett Atkins, but the Orioles entered Friday night's game ranked last in the American League with just 60 runs in 15 games.

Surely, there are plenty of other contributing factors. Young guns Nolan Reimold and Matt Wieters have struggled badly at the plate, and Tejada has not really found his groove. But the Orioles have to cling to the belief that when Roberts returns, the offensive chemistry will come with him.

"Brian wants to do that," Trembley said. "Brian is a very big part of this team. Everyone knows that. It will be to our benefit and his benefit when he can play on a regular and a consistent basis. I think it's very important. It would make his life and our life a lot easier. I can imagine what he's going through."

Roberts doesn't reveal much about what's going on inside him, but you can bet he's frustrated on a lot of levels. He suffered through a difficult first half of last year, when a persistent bronchial infection, an earlier back issue and a bruised shin seemed to suck the life out of him.

He rebounded to set a major league single-season record for doubles by a switch-hitter and became only the fourth player in major league history to have three seasons with 50 doubles or more. But he clearly was looking forward to a fresh start with an improved Orioles lineup this season, and now that is very much in question.

The team is saying all the right things about his taking his time and making sure he's 100 percent healthy, but time is running short to get him enough exhibition starts to glue this offensive team together.

Roberts indicated Friday that he wants to get back as quickly as possible but he isn't sure that anybody else's performance hinges on his presence in the lineup during spring training.

"I don't know about that," he said. "It's not like basketball or football, where you have to know your routes. It might affect somebody who's hitting behind you, but Adam Jones did that all year last year."

Teammate and close friend Nick Markakis thinks it matters, but not as much as making sure that Roberts is ready to play full time when the regular season begins.

"It's important, but for the most part, guys just need to do what they need to do," Markakis said. "We're all major league players here. We know what we need to do. I guess you could say that [it's important to have Roberts in there], but the important thing is for him to get healthy and not rush back. If he's there for Opening Day, he is. If he's not, we'll be anxious to get him back."

Though Roberts downplays his importance in the development of team chemistry, he does believe that the way the Orioles end spring training could have a big impact on how they start the regular season.

"I know we probably haven't won as many games as you'd like," Roberts said, "but most important is probably the last week or 10 days, when you start to play a little bit better baseball, and your starting guys who will be in your rotation will hopefully start to go deeper in games and you'll see them start to throw the ball a little better, and you get your starting lineup in there together and start to score a few more runs. I don't think anybody is panicking yet."

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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