Uehara thrilled to be back with O's

Reliever's last game in majors was June 23

May 07, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

MINNEAPOLIS — — Orioles reliever Koji Uehara walked around the visiting clubhouse at Target Field before Thursday night's game, greeting teammates and reporters. A wide smile never left his face.

"I'm very, very happy to be here," Uehara said through his interpreter, Jiwon Bang. "Every time I step on a major league mound, it's exciting."

It had certainly been a while. Uehara, who was activated from the disabled list Thursday, hadn't pitched in a bigleague game since June 23, when he exited a start against the Florida Marlins with elbow soreness. Uehara missed the rest of the 2009 season with a partially torn flexor tendon in his right elbow.

He then arrived at spring training with the expectation that he would be a key component of the Orioles' bullpen, but he strained his left hamstring March 15 and started the season on the disabled list. After staying back at the team's spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla., for a couple of weeks to give his hamstring time to heal, Uehara threw four scoreless one-inning outings on a rehabilitation assignment before he was activated.

The Orioles wasted no time getting him into a game, inserting him in the eighth inning of Thursday night's contest against the Minnesota Twins, who were trailing 2-0.

Uehara turned in a perfect inning against Minnesota, throwing nine of his 12 pitches for strikes and striking out Wilson Ramos looking to end the eighth.

"The pitchers and position players, they told me, 'Welcome back.' It felt really good," Uehara said. "[My stuff] wasn't bad, but at the same time, it wasn't perfect."

Orioles manager Dave Trembley said Uehara, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the club before last season because he was afforded the opportunity to start, will be used as a late-game reliever. However, it's unlikely he would get save opportunities right away unless Alfredo Simon is unavailable.

"I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch and getting him in there when we can," Trembley said. "He's been a one-inning guy [on his rehab assignment], and I wouldn't expect him to be more than a one-inning guy here."

Uehara, 35, said he'll be prepared to pitch whenever he is asked and he's again looking forward to measuring himself against big league hitters. In 12 starts last years, he went 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA before injury and stamina issues caught up to him.

Markakis in center?

Center fielder Adam Jones returned to the lineup Thursday night after missing one game with a right hip strain. Trembley, who watched Lou Montanez struggle in center field Wednesday, said he was prepared to start Nick Markakis in center Thursday night if Jones had been unable to play.

Markakis hasn't played center field since his rookie season in 2006. That year, he started 24 games in left and eight in center before becoming exclusively a right fielder.

"I think with Jones out, he's the best outfielder, and you put your best outfielder in center field if you have to adjust," Trembley said. "Then I would have put two other guys, obviously, in the corners."

Meredith finding rhythm

This is ultimately what Orioles reliever Cla Meredith expected after he made the team thanks to a strong spring: to get the ball on a regular basis and pitch in the late innings with the game on the line. But that hadn't happened until recently, when the demotion of struggling setup man Jim Johnson thrust Meredith into a bigger role.

"For whatever reason, the innings that I threw in spring training that supposedly earned me a job on this team — not anything I did in the past — evidently didn't seem as valued early in the year as maybe some innings other people threw," Meredith said. "I don't know why that was the case, but that's how it shook out for me. I was fortunate to hang in there, and now I'm starting to get some looks, some opportunities."

The submarine-style pitcher credits the increased workload — he had pitched in four of the Orioles' past six games entering Thursday — with improved results. He hadn't given up a run in nine consecutive outings after serving up solo home runs in two of his first three appearances this season. Not only has he lowered his ERA to 2.25, but Meredith also hasn't allowed a base runner in his past four outings.

"I've been able to find my stuff, find my [arm] slot," Meredith said.

"I'm no different than any other guy. It's just a matter of getting over that hump and trying to get yourself into a groove. I just try to mentally as be as tough as I can, and the biggest thing is I want to help out, even if things aren't going so well. I still want to contribute."

Around the horn

Trembley acknowledged that shortstop Julio Lugo, not second baseman Ty Wigginton, was at fault on Wednesday when the Orioles couldn't get an out on the New York Yankee Francisco Cervelli's bunt. Third baseman Miguel Tejada fielded the bunt but didn't throw to second because Wigginton was late covering. Wigginton's responsibility was to cover first, while Lugo was supposed to cover second. … Trembley said that barring injuries, the Orioles probably won't make any roster moves until the team returns home next week. … Even with a right-hander pitching, struggling designated hitter Luke Scott was held out of the starting lineup for the third time in four games. … Twins star catcher Joe Mauer (soft tissue bruise in left heel) missed his sixth straight game Thursday and is questionable for the series.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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