Martinez muscles into lineup Oates to expand right fielder's role


OAKLAND, Calif. -- Chito Martinez has spent the past two months waiting in the wings and wondering whether he ever would return to the Orioles starting lineup. Now, it appears, his time has come.

Minutes after his three-run homer carried the club to a 7-6 victory over the Oakland Athletics, Martinez got a major vote of confidence from the man who makes out the lineup card. He'll be showing up in right field much more often.

"Chito's going to get a lot of playing time for a while," said manager Johnny Oates. "We gave Joe [Orsulak] a chance. We've given Chito a few spot chances, and he's been swinging the bat pretty well."

Martinez has been swinging the bat with authority on this West Coast road swing. The three-run, sixth-inning home run off left-hander Vince Horsman was his second at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum this weekend and his third on the trip.

"He's gaining confidence and going after the ball," Oates said. "It might have something to do with getting an opportunity to play."

There was room to wonder whether Martinez would get that opportunity after spending the first six weeks of the season "in limbo." Oates asked him to be patient. His time would come. But the waiting wasn't easy, especially after he went hitless in his first 15 at-bats of the season.

"It was hard," Martinez said. "If I had mixed in a few hits in those first few at-bats, it might not have been so bad, but I wasn't feeling good at the plate. I didn't know what to do or how to accept the role I was in."

He survived and now is beginning to thrive because the lines of communication with Oates were open throughout his slow start. They talked frequently, and the message was always the same.

"He made things easier for me," Martinez said. "He told me to relax and have fun -- not to put too much pressure on myself and not to try so hard to get a big hit every time I went up there. There were some doubts, but he made it clear that I would be here."

Martinez went hitless in April, but he managed to contribute here and there without swinging the bat. He drove in three runs with bases-loaded walks in the early weeks of the season.

He was so selective at the plate that for several days in early May, he had the lowest batting average on the team and the highest on-base percentage.

That was small consolation after a 1991 season in which he broke into the major-league lineup and played well enough to stay there. He hit 13 home runs after he was called up in July and came to spring training this year looking like a solid bet to play regularly in right. It didn't start out that way, even though the release of veteran Dwight Evans made more playing time available.

"We tried to explain the role to him," Oates said. "Joe had been one of the leading hitters on the team the past couple of years. He deserved the chance to start the season in right field. He [Chito] would have to wait. He would have to prepare himself for when his opportunity came."

Oates, who prides himself on his honest interaction with the players, called Orsulak in the other day to tell him that Martinez's opportunity was about to arrive.

"I talked to Joe yesterday and told him I didn't know when he'd be playing," Oates said. "He said, 'You've got to do your job.' In a sport where people put so much emphasis on 'I,' we've got a few guys who are still 'we' players. That's refreshing."

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