Quick rise, fast start for Orioles rookie Xavier Avery

Speedy outfielder has reached majors at just 22 and made an impact once he got there

May 24, 2012|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

Xavier Avery could have excelled in any sport, but he chose baseball because he saw it as a game his talents could grow into with hard work. He enjoyed the challenge of playing a sport in which there's always room for improvement — where getting three hits in 10 at-bats is universally seen as successful.

To him, it's a game best-suited to his competitiveness, and having grown up in a family that has collected plenty of athletic accolades, Avery had little choice but be competitive.

His older half-brother was one of the top high school quarterbacks in Georgia and went on to play wide receiver at Memphis. Another half-brother, two years younger, has emerged as an All-America baseball player and will likely get drafted in two weeks.

Avery was in the middle — a football and baseball star with rare speed — growing up outside Atlanta. When the Orioles took him in the second round of the 2008 draft, he had already signed to play football at Georgia.

Quietly confident, his father, Teddy Griffin, calls him.

"He loves to prove what he can do, but he doesn't say much," Griffin said. "He always says to me, 'I'm not going to tell you, I'm going to show you.'"

Now, the secret is out. The 22-year-old rookie outfielder has had his taste of the major leagues, his contract purchased from Triple-A Norfolk on May 13 to fill left fielder and leadoff hitter spots ravaged by injuries.

This time last year, he was struggling through Double-A, but suddenly, he has been thrust into an everyday role. Avery, less than two weeks into his big league career, has made an immediate impression on the Orioles brass.

"He's taking it in," manager Buck Showalter said, "and not going around with big eyes. He's been on the big stage before. He's been around the lights and the attention."

Avery is here by circumstance. If a rash of injuries hadn't occurred, he would still be with Norfolk. But starting left fielder Nolan Reimold is out indefinitely with a bulging disk in his neck, and backup outfielder Endy Chavez is on the disabled list with an intercostal strain. Reimold and Chavez had split leadoff duties.

"I understand that this doesn't happen to a lot of rookies, so the situation I'm in, I'm thankful for it," Avery said. "I get a chance to prove myself. I'm getting a chance to see what my game is like against other major leaguers. It's not just showing fans and the team how I play, but also, I wanted to see what I was made of."

Avery has reached base on nine of his past 10 games after going 0-for-4 in his major league debut May 13. He began his second game with a double into right-center field off New York Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova, then hit an run-scoring triple off Nova for his first RBI.

He has five multi-hit games in 11 starts and owns a .347 on-base percentage. When he's on base, his speed adds a dimension these Orioles haven't had.

"He creates some anxiety, and he makes people hurry," Showalter said. "I don't care how long you've been playing, it's a dimension every team's in need of. There's some energy there that [the Orioles] get from being able to go multiple bases on one ball."

'I've always believed'

Orioles scout David Jennings remembers one of the main moments that sold him on a teenage Avery. He was at a showcase event at the Detroit Tigers' spring training home in Lakeland, Fla., when Avery turned on a fastball and blasted it over the scoreboard in right field of Joker Marchant Stadium.

"[The scouts] still talk about that every summer in Lakeland," Jennings said. "He had the power. He could lay it down and play small ball. He could use the whole field to hit. He could run down any ball. And he always has well above-average speed. He was raw coming out, but his speed could make up for most things. A lot of talent and a lot of tools, they just needed to be refined."

Avery played on travel-ball teams with Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward and Colorado Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler, so he had to fight for the spotlight.

It was the same with his half-brothers. His older brother, Maurice Avery, set the foundation of success. He played wide receiver at Memphis, was briefly recruited to play on the school's basketball team, and even now is the leading receiver for the Allen (Texas) Wranglers of the Indoor Football League. His younger brother, Trey Griffin, was always biting at his heels. Like Avery before him, he was an Aflac High School All-America outfielder.

"We were competitive with everything," Griffin said. "From sports to chores, even who could finish washing the dishes first."

Said Avery: "My confidence is always there. I've always believed I can play. It's just the competitiveness in me. That's the way I was raised. I have two brothers, and we always compete. We never stepped down. I don't care who I'm facing, I always think I can beat them."

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