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Mercedes is off and running


It was tantalizing, a look, perhaps, into the Orioles' future.

The game was only minutes old when Luis Mercedes, in his first major-league game, demonstrated the skills that have prompted talk in the organization that he may one day be the Orioles' regular leadoff hitter.

In the bottom of the first inning, Mercedes reached on an error, then stirred yesterday's crowd of 32,488 by streaking from first to third on a ground ball to the third baseman. Moments later, he scored on Cal Ripken's infield out.

Without the benefit of a hit, it was Orioles 1, Kansas City 0.

And then the third inning: In his second at-bat, Mercedes stretched a single into a double for his first major-league hit, was sacrificed to third and scored on Ripken's single.

Orioles 2, Kansas City 0.

When Mercedes trotted to rightfield at the start of the fourth inning, the fans in the bleachers applauded. Mercedes waved in acknowledgement.

L "You gotta love him," Ben McDonald would say later, smiling.

On the day the Orioles lost to the Royals, 3-2, Mercedes provided most of the excitement. The 23-year-old outfielder went 2-for-4, drew a walk and scored twice.

"We all saw during spring training that this is the type of runner he is," manager John Oates said. "Jerry Narron [Hagerstown Suns manager] says the only way to stop him on the bases is to put a rope around him. He runs until he scores or is tagged out."

"He'll play some more," Oates said, when asked to outline his plans for Mercedes the rest of the season. "He'll get a chance to show what he can do."

The Orioles have some reservations about Mercedes. He has been suspended several times, including last month after he threw his helmet in the face of an opposing player after an exchange of words. The International League suspended him for the rest of its season.

"He hustles all the time," said one of his best friends, Orioles first baseman/outfielder David Segui. "He makes mistakes on the bases, but in the long run he helps a team.

"He seemed nervous before this game, so I left him alone. He can be a sparkplug. He may be around for a while."

Mercedes, who goes home to the Dominican Republic during the offseason, is struggling with the English language. When he saw a crowd of writers approaching him in the clubhouse after the game, he smiled and said, "Ooooh."

"This is the kind of game I got, exciting," he said. "Every league I play in, I've been exciting."

He smiled again when asked about his reaction to the fans' applause in the fourth inning. He tried to make it clear that even though he has had occasional trouble with opposing players, and sometimes teammates, he has never had a beef with fans.

"I'm very nice to fans," he said. "They pay to see a good game and be happy."

It appeared for a while that Mercedes' two runs would be enough to make McDonald happy. Intent on winning successive starts for the first time this season, McDonald took a three-hit shutout into the seventh inning.

He then gave up two runs and was lifted after the seventh. He threw 95 pitches, many of them curves that were, by darn, in the strike zone. For that reason alone, he considered it a good outing.

"My best pitch was the curve," said McDonald, who normally relies on his fastball. "I found my touch to the curve."

Danny Tartabull, the Royals' rightfielder, agreed: "He had a great curve, that's what made him tough. He mixed it with his fastball and changeup and when you get those pitches going in the strike zone, it makes it difficult for hitters to pick a pitch to hit."

McDonald had left his previous start, last week in Toronto, with stiffness in his right shoulder. It was tight again yesterday.

"That's probably why I didn't have much of a fastball," McDonald said. "That helps in a way, forcing me to pitch [rather than throw]. When my fastball does come back, I'll be that much better."

As the game wore on, McDonald kept telling Oates he was OK, but without enthusiasm. McDonald finally confided to pitching coach Al Jackson: "If they score, you'd better get me out."

Said Jackson, "I wanted the truth. I knew he was starting to get tired and had had problems loosening up this start and the last one. He probably could have finished, but why chance it? He gave us seven good innings."

Reliever Todd Frohwirth gave the Orioles one, then gave up twstraight hits in the ninth. Jim Eisenreich's sacrifice settled it.

And Oates was branded with the 21st one-run loss of his tenuras manager.

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