Worthington puts on powerful push to save job


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Craig Worthington is in the process of putting a lock on the third base job, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Orioles will place Leo Gomez on the trading block.

It doesn't mean they won't either, but general manager Roland Hemond says the Orioles long ago established a precedent against making hasty decisions in such situations.

"Remember Don Baylor and Bobby Grich?" Hemond asked after the Orioles beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 17-9 in a wind tunnel at Vero Beach. "This organization has a tradition of having that kind of depth."

Baylor and Grich were both stymied by the Orioles' powerhouse in the early 1970s, spending at least an extra year, and maybe two, at the Triple A level. Manager Frank Robinson, who ironically was traded to make room for Baylor after the 1971 season, has said he will not keep both Worthington and Gomez on the Orioles' roster this year.

The fact that neither has anything left to prove at Triple A (Worthington was International League MVP in 1988, Gomez the runner-up last year), would indicate a return wouldn't benefit anybody. But Hemond says the club will not make a hasty decision -- on who wins the job or what happens to the loser.

"It's not something we've discussed yet," said Hemond, who nevertheless realizes the time is rapidly approaching. "We'll just let them play and see what happens."

Asked if it was possible to ask Gomez or Worthington to return to Rochester, Hemond just shrugged. "You'd love your organization to have that kind of depth," said Hemond.

The most encouraging thing for Robinson about the third base competition is that the position will not be won by default, which happens often in these spring training duels. Going into yesterday's game, Worthington (.273) and Gomez (.275) had almost identical batting averages, and their other numbers were comparable.

The difference is that Worthington has two years of major-league experience, and, even if the last one was a little suspect, that works in his favor. So does his acknowledged advantage on defense.

Yesterday's game was a difficult one on which to make judgments because of the windy conditions. But the fact that Worthington hit the first of three three-run homers for the Orioles and later added a pair of singles made it apparent he is holding up to the challenge by Gomez.

Worthington didn't need a telegram outlining the situation before he arrived for spring training. Neither did he think he had to win a job.

"I put that stuff out of my mind," said Worthington. "I knew when I came here there would be a guy at my position who would be hungry -- who still is hungry.

"But I didn't come here thinking I had to win a job. I came in shape with the idea of doing what Craig Worthington can do. I didn't look at the competition at all."

It's a lot easier to rationalize now, because he's had a solid spring, but there's no question Worthington got off on the right foot with Robinson and the coaching staff. Unlike a year ago, when he was late reporting after the lockout and left some with the impression his position was secure, Worthington came to camp early this year -- determined to prove a point.

"I had one off year, and people started questioning whether I could hit," said Worthington, who hit .226 with eight homers and 44 RBIs last season. "I just put too much pressure on myself. Management didn't do it -- I did it to myself.

"I wanted to get off to a good start and build on the numbers I had [from 1989 -- .247, 15, 70]. When that didn't happen, things started to snowball. I was fighting myself, fighting the fans."

In the process he missed the second stage of becoming a hitter in the big leagues. "The pitchers adjusted to me, and I didn't readjust," said Worthington.

Worthington struggled early in his rookie year, but his salvation nTC was the fact that he drove in runs, many in critical situations. "When I started slow last year, I didn't have the RBIs to fall back on," said Worthington. "The more I tried to catch up, the more it seemed like I fell behind.

"I think they [the Orioles] feel that for me to hit for average would be a bonus. I've got to drive in some runs.

"I feel good now and I'm very relaxed. I'm not trying to pull everything, I'm using the whole field and just trying to hit the ball hard. If I do that, the home runs will come. That's what happened today. The count was 2-and-0 and I wasn't trying to pull the ball, just hit it hard."

A year ago, Worthington said much of his problem could be traced to not being selective enough at the plate. "I swung at too many pitches," he said, "pitches that I should have taken. Then, when I did get a 2-and-0 count I tried to do too much."

So far this spring Worthington has looked like a hitter who has benefited from two years' experience in the big leagues. "You always look relaxed when you're in a good groove," said Robinson, "and he's in a good groove."

What is different?

"Nothing," said Robinson. "To me he just looks like Worthy."

Actually, what Craig Worthington is doing right now is giving a good impression of what he -- and the Orioles -- had hoped for a year ago. But nobody ever said it would be automatic.

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