By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun
7:36 PM EDT, March 11, 2013
— In three weeks the Orioles will take the field against the Tampa Bay Rays on Opening Day in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Brian Roberts is expected to be starting at second base.
Nothing new there.
Roberts, the former All-Star and once the face of the franchise, had been the club's Opening Day second baseman from 2004 to 2011.
Last year, though, Roberts' streak was broken. Due to complications from multiple concussions, Roberts was sidelined for the first two-plus months of the regular season, one in which he ultimately played just 17 games after suffering a hip injury that required surgery. He then had offseason sports hernia surgery — another potential setback for the 35-year-old who once was among the most durable in baseball at his position.
Heading into camp this February, Roberts pronounced himself healthy. And the club was cautiously optimistic that he could be able to survive or even thrive in spring training and be ready for his ninth Opening Day as a starter.
As Orioles manager Buck Showalter likes to say, "So far, so good."
"If I was ready on February 24, I hope I'll be ready on April 2," said Roberts, who is 8-for-20 (.400 average) with two doubles and a homer in seven spring games. "I'm excited."
Showalter has been taking it slowly with Roberts, keeping him out of road games so far this month. Roberts appreciates the approach, but admits it can be maddening.
"Buck would probably tell you I've been champing at the bit, [been] in his ear. I want to play. It's been hard to be held back almost," said Roberts, who has played in just 115 games in the past three regular seasons. "I enjoy getting my work in on the days when I don't play, but I enjoy the game more than I enjoy the staying back working. … I know that it's a long season, and we're trying to take the approach that will have me ready to play."
Showalter said Roberts will definitely make some road trips before the exhibition season ends — especially once the club pares its roster after March 17's split-squad schedule.
"It's going to be on what his needs are," Showalter said. "And I'm going to trust him on it."
Showalter said he is trying to give the veteran his time and space, allowing him to prepare for the season while not over-extending him.
"You can tell how excited he is to be back in the flow of what he does," Showalter said. "It's not one of those things that there was someone saying, 'How are you feeling? How are you feeling?' I'm not going to hit that with him. He knows where he's got to be. I know he is not on that treatment sheet much at all. I think he feels like he is in a good place body-wise."
Roberts' aggressive nature has always been part of his game. He likes to take the extra base, slide headfirst into bases and dive for balls — a dangerous recipe for someone with concussion issues.
So far this spring, he has dived for one grounder and has not attempted a steal. But he did dive back to first on a pickoff play this week.
"I haven't dove headfirst yet on a steal. I don't foresee it being a problem. My doctors don't foresee it being a problem," he said. "I have the confidence now just in being out there every day and feeling very different than I did last year. I think moving forward everything is in the right place."
Roberts hasn't been a regular contributor since 2009, when the Orioles were a last-place club. He signed a four-year, $40 million extension before the 2010 season — a move heralded by most fans — but because of injuries has not been able to live up to the expectations that came with such a lucrative deal.
Now he is in the last year of that contract and is a senior statesman on a returning playoff squad.
"I was talking about it a little the other day. Most people in the world think I'm young still, but when you're sitting beside [20-year-old third baseman Manny Machado], you feel old sometimes," Roberts said. "I don't think I'm old. I don't feel old. I hope I don't act that way. I hope I don't play that way. It's a number, and that's all it is. It certainly comes with, I guess, some experience and some things I can hopefully use to help some guys on the team in general."
When healthy, Roberts was one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. But when he was hurt last year, three different players stepped up and succeeded — albeit in limited opportunities — in the spot: Nolan Reimold, Nick Markakis and Nate McLouth. All are back for 2013.
Showalter has not showed his hand as to who will bat leadoff. Roberts has hit both first and second this month. He joked that he wants to bat fourth, knocking out Adam Jones from the cleanup spot.
"As long as I'm not hitting 10th, I'm good," he said. "We got a lot of guys who can interchange parts and interchange positions in this lineup, and we feel like we're going to have a great lineup, one through nine. … It's a good problem to have when so many guys that can do so many different things."
Really, Roberts said he is just focused on returning to the lineup and staying healthy for a full season — something he hasn't been able to do as he has gotten older.
He has passed the first test: Getting through the first half of spring training in one piece. The next big one comes in three weeks at Tropicana Field against the Rays.
"Everything's been great," Roberts said. "It's been nice to get out, play and … just kind of be normal again and be like everybody else."
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