Keys to learn soon if practice makes perfect


For openers, the Frederick Keys will be no different from the rest of the teams in the Orioles' minor-league system -- they're happy to see a bona fide opponent.

Because of the major-league club's stance against replacement players, the minor-league teams went through a prolonged six-week spring training without any exhibition games. All of the game competition came from within the organization.

"I think the staff created a good environment and the players did a good job," said Keys manager Mike O'Berry. "But the last 10 days, seeing the same faces every day, made it tough. I think everybody's anxious to get started."

When the Keys open their Single-A Carolina League season tonight at home against the Kinston Indians, they will present a different look from a year ago. "We're a lot younger," said O'Berry, "but overall I think we're better defensively, have more team speed and our pitching will be a little better.

"We're not going to have as much power as we had last year, but I think we can make up for that with speed and defense."

O'Berry will be relying heavily on a nucleus of players who compiled a 39-29 record last year at Bluefield, which finished second in the Appalachian Rookie League.

Right-hander Rocky Coppinger, one of three Bluefield graduates in Frederick's starting rotation, draws the Opening Night pitching assignment.

"He's got a real good arm and probably throws harder than anybody we had here last year," said O'Berry. "If he puts it all together he'll be tough."

Coppinger, a 19th-round draft choice in 1993, was 4-3 with a 2.45 ERA for Bluefield last year.

Matt Marenghi and left-hander Rachaad Stewart are the other starters from that team. John Lombardi, who was 8-9 at Single-A Albany last season, will pitch in the No. 4 slot.

Carlos Chavez, who had a league-leading 92 strikeouts at Bluefield, is another strong-armed right-hander who could fit into the fifth slot in the rotation. Ron Kitchen, who allowed only one run in 18 games at Albany, and left-hander Tom Daigle are potential closers.

Right-handers Joe Dawley, Dalton Maine, Robert Mayse and Hut Smith will open in long relief roles.

Third baseman Tommy Davis is perhaps the most recognizable name on the Keys' roster. The Orioles' second-round draft pick (first overall) last year, Davis hit .314 in his last 42 games at Albany last year.

Davis, Jim Foster and first baseman Chris Kirgan figure to represent the bulk of the power in the Keys' lineup. Foster hit .266 with eight home runs last season at Albany, where he led the team in doubles (29), runs batted in (56) and total bases (171).

Todd Bridgers, who had 39 stolen bases and hit .260 at Albany last year, will open in center field, with Trovin Valdez in right field. Either Wes Hawkins or Matt Riemer, a Patapsco High grad, will be in left.

Of the 25 players who came north with the Keys, seven of them will be starting their first full year of professional ball. For 10 others it will be their second year.

For that reason, the extended spring training was helpful.

"We had a real good camp," said O'Berry. "I saw a lot of improvement in a lot of players in the course of that time."

Now comes the real test.

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