SARASOTA, Fla. — Before Chris Tillman even threw his first pitch against the Minnesota Twins on Friday night, Orioles third baseman Miguel Tejada got Brian Roberts' attention across the diamond and saluted him with his glove.
The Orioles fell 4-3 to the Twins at Ed Smith Stadium as Tillman struggled with his control in 4 1/3 shaky innings, but they felt good just to have their two-time All-Star second baseman back, no matter how rusty he looked.
In his first action this spring, Roberts went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts against the Twins' Opening Day starter, Scott Baker, but he converted all his routine chances defensively and at least looked pain free from the herniated disk in his lower back that has bothered him all spring.
"My last at-bat, actually I started to finally feel a lot more comfortable in the box," Roberts said "My first two, I was pretty clueless. But that's the way it is every year. It doesn't take long. It only takes a couple of at-bats to kind of get your timing going."
Orioles manager Dave Trembley said that at this point, he couldn't care less about the results of Roberts' at-bats, and Friday night reaffirmed his belief that the leadoff man will be ready to play April 6 when the Orioles open the 2010 season against the Tampa Bay Rays.
"If you were all listening to me earlier, I had every reason to be confident to believe that he'll be ready April 6," Trembley said. "There's nothing that has ever changed my mind. I trust my players, I trust what's been going on and tonight was just the first step in making that a reality."
Roberts, who got a nice ovation when he was introduced as part of the starting lineup and again before his first at-bat, saw four pitches in his first plate appearance this spring. The at-bat ended when Roberts looked at a curveball, a called third strike from Baker.
In the fourth inning, Roberts fouled two balls off before swinging through a third strike. Finally in the sixth, Roberts got ahead 3-0 and Baker threw three straight strikes, the final one a high fastball that the Orioles leadoff man couldn't catch up to.
Roberts saw a total of 15 pitches and swung at six of them, fouling off four. He admitted that a couple of the swing-and-misses provided a good test for his sore back.
"Anytime you take a full swing and miss and you're still standing there ... if you hit it, you're focused on running and don't really think about it," Roberts said. "But I felt fine physically."
Roberts didn't really get tested defensively. He applied the tag on Brendan Harris, who Orioles catcher Craig Tatum gunned down stealing in the second. He caught shortstop Cesar Izturis' throw on Harris' fielder's choice grounder to end the third. He then made two routine plays in the fourth and another one on Alexi Casilla's grounder in the sixth.
Roberts will likely take Saturday afternoon's game against the Boston Red Sox off and return to the Orioles' lineup Sunday when they face the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin.
"I would think Brian knows himself well enough to know, let's play, let's be smart about it," Trembley said. "The goal is still to get him ready to play April 6. It sure is nice to have him back with us, but we are not expecting too much, too soon. I'm just glad we got him back and he feels comfortable that he can go out and play."
Roberts does have experience in such situations. He suffered a dislocated left elbow, torn tendon and torn ulnar collateral ligament Sept. 20, 2005, and had extensive surgery 10 days later. When he reported to spring training 4 1/2 months later, Roberts' status for the first game of the 2006 season was very much in doubt.
He didn't play his first spring game until March 21, but he progressed enough to be on the field when the Orioles began the 2006 season at home against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The minimal at-bats this spring also didn't appear to affect Roberts as he hit .330 that April with 13 runs, 13 RBIs and nine steals.
Asked Friday night if there is any doubt that he'll be ready for Opening Day, Roberts said, "Not at this point. Obviously if I wake up tomorrow and can't get out of bed, but as of right now, no."