ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Orioles manager Buck Showalter has talked several times about how much he is looking forward to the start of spring training in mid-February, and the latest occurrence came Tuesday, after he toured the team's major and minor league facilities in Sarasota.
An Orioles contingent headed by president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail and Showalter made the 45-minute trip from St. Petersburg to Sarasota to check out the progress of the $31 million renovations to Ed Smith Stadium and the minor league facility at Twin Lakes Park. Both projects are expected to be finished by the time players report to spring training in February, except for the overhaul of the clubhouse building at Ed Smith Stadium.
"It's come a long way, a lot of hard work and time and effort behind the scenes and on the scenes to get to that point," said Showalter, who hadn't visited the facility since he was as an adviser with the Cleveland Indians following his firing by the Texas Rangers after the 2006 season. "I think everybody is [as] excited about the minor league upgrade as they are the major league upgrade. The stadium looks beautiful, right on schedule and we look forward to February. It eliminates a lot of challenges we've had in the past, so it'll be good for the players. I know they will be excited when they see it."
The renovations will include the addition of an Astroturf field, which will help the Orioles prepare for their 18 games a season on the turf in both Toronto and here at Tropicana Field.
"Baseball functionality was the only thing I was really looking at, and it's going to function real well," Showalter said. "It's going to be a great fan experience for the fans, as much as everything, and it will get even better the following year. I think they are planning on doing the locker rooms some, but the locker room is fine for now."
Construction is going on in all areas of the facility. Workers are hoping to finish the steel work for the stadium by November, and then they'll begin the framing of the stadium.
"This is the most fun part of the project," Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles' vice president for planning and development, said as she stood in what remained of the gutted press box and looked out toward center field Monday. "You can see it coming together. Everything is no longer on paper."
Hendrickson not surprised
Orioles reliever Mark Hendrickson played for the Tampa Bay Rays for 21/2 seasons, and he said he was not the least bit surprised by the attendance in Monday's series opener, in which a Tampa Bay victory would have clinched the franchise's second playoff berth.
The announced attendance was 12,446, the fourth-smallest crowd at Tropicana Field all season, and the lack of support drew criticism from Rays stars Evan Longoria and David Price.
"It's unfortunate, but it is kind of what it is," Hendrickson said. "The first year, I think the novelty of the playoffs, everybody kind of banded together and it created a nice atmosphere and a nice situation. It just comes down to what is your true fan base, and your true fan base is there through thick and thin.
The sad part is if they get to the playoffs, it will probably be sold out, and even as a player, you kind of look around and say, 'Come on, where were you when we were trying to get in?' It's unfortunate, but the teams with the greatest atmospheres in baseball have a fan base that has long been with the team."
In response to Monday's crowd and the negative publicity the low attendance drew, the Rays announced Tuesday that they'll give away 20,000 tickets, first-come, first-served to Wednesday's series finale.
Uehara keeps rolling
After surrendering a three-run, ninth-inning home run to the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez on Sept. 17, Koji Uehara vowed to shrug off his second blown save and come back stronger. He has kept his word.
Uehara has faced 12 batters in four appearances since the Rodriguez homer and retired all of them in dominant fashion. Nine of those 12 outs came via strikeout.
By striking out the side in the ninth inning of Monday's 4-0 Orioles victory, Uehara extended his franchise record of not walking a batter to 29 consecutive appearances spanning 31 innings. Of relievers with at least 30 innings pitched, Uehara leads the American League and is tied for third in the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 10.00. He's also third in the AL and 15th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (10.98).
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