ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- First baseman Glenn Davis took the first step in what he hopes will be a successful comeback from two years of chronic neck and back problems last night, making his 1993 exhibition debut in a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Al Lang Stadium.
Davis, who sustained a freak neck injury during spring training two years ago, was limited to 49 games in 1991 and forced into a full-time designated hitter role last year. The Orioles hope that he can play regularly at first base in 1993, and he played two innings there last night.
It was a brief appearance, but it was an encouraging one. Davis was not challenged in the field, but he lined a solid base hit to right in his first at-bat of the spring and scored a decisive run on a double by outfielder Sherman Obando.
"It was only the first day of spring training for me, but it was a good day," Davis said. "I've been making progress. It's just a step in my preparation for the season. That's the goal -- to be ready for the season -- and I think we're moving in the right direction."
He undertook a new conditioning and rehabilitation program during the winter, working under the supervision of fitness specialist Mackie Shilstone to overcome the back and shoulder pain that bothered him throughout last season. The results were encouraging enough to persuade the Orioles to let go of veteran first baseman Randy Milligan, but Davis still is taking his return to first one small step at a time.
"Last year and the year before, we approached things too aggressively and it didn't turn out very well," Davis said earlier this week. "The club has a plan for me now. We're taking it much more gradually."
How long will it take? Or, more importantly, how much playing time will he need to be ready to play regularly come Opening Day? He missed the first six days of the exhibition season and figures to play only sporadically over the next couple of weeks. He looked sharp in his one at-bat, but how many at-bats will be needed?
"I think it's an individual thing," manager Johnny Oates said. "With Glenn, the important thing is that he is physically well. The at-bats will take care of themselves.
"I never gave any thought to him not getting enough at-bats to be ready for the season. If he's healthy . . . that's the thing that I'm looking for."
Davis cannot guarantee that he'll be injury-free in 1993, but he seems confident that he will be better equipped to contribute this year than he was in either of his first two seasons with the club.
Oates is trying not to put undo pressure on Davis, but there is a lot riding on his rehab program. If he plays first base every day, it will leave the designated hitter role wide open for Harold Baines, which will make the offensive lineup that much more cohesive.
Last night's game was a good example. The starting lineup included both Baines and Davis, who delivered back-to-back hits in a two-run second inning. If Oates gets his way, they will be in the lineup together for at least 100 games this year.
There are alternatives, but none that would provide the same kind of offensive punch. Oates has confidence in reserve first baseman David Segui, who will play almost every day that Davis doesn't. He also can turn to first baseman-outfielder Doug Jennings in a pinch. But the best-case scenario was presented in the early innings last night.