FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Orioles' outfield situation isn't shaking out quite as expected. Jeffrey Hammonds is playing everywhere and newcomer Jerome Walton is nowhere to be found.
Walton, who was signed in part to make Hammonds more expendable, suffered an abdominal strain early in spring training, and will have to prove in a hurry that he deserves a place on the Orioles' 25-man Opening Day roster.
"I know Jerome is a very useful and talented player when healthy," manager Davey Johnson said before yesterday's 5-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox at City of Palms Park, "but after missing a considerable amount of time the last couple of years and then coming in this spring and having down time, well, you fill in the blanks.
"I don't criticize players for physical injuries, but I'm not going to beg guys to play either. Let's put it this way. After we come back from the off day [tomorrow], his availability is critical."
The past few years, it has been Hammonds' health that has been the issue. He has not been able to get through a major-league season without spending at least a few weeks on the sidelines. That's why the conventional wisdom at the start of spring training was that he would be traded sometime this spring to alleviate the club's crowded outfield situation.
Hammonds, however, has been one of the Orioles' most productive players, appearing in 15 of the club's 18 exhibition games and batting .325. He is tied for the team lead with three homers and ranks third on the club with nine RBIs. Walton has appeared in seven games and has batted just 15 times (.267).
"He has got to be available," Johnson said. "I can't think about dropping players who have been playing, then end up with a guy on the disabled list. I nurse-maided some people last year because we were thin, but I'm not going to play nursemaid to anyone this year."
If Walton does not make the club, then the Orioles could keep both Hammonds and Tony Tarasco and get at least one of them regular playing time as an extra outfielder/part-time DH.
Johnson sent his veterans back to Fort Lauderdale early, so the starting lineup for yesterday's game included Kelly Gruber in right field, Hammonds in center and Manny Alexander in left.
Gruber didn't embarrass himself in right. He threw out Mike Stanley trying to score from second on a base hit in the eighth inning and also had three more hits.
Not bad for a guy who went hitless in his first 16 at-bats of the spring. Gruber had his first two hits of the exhibition season Sunday against Minnesota. Now he has five in his last nine at-bats.
"I'm getting closer," he said. "I'm not where I want to be yet, but the more opportunities I have to play, the better I feel."
It was the first time he has played in the outfield since 1993, and he could tell when he let go of the throw in the eighth inning.
"I just wondered if my arm was going to follow it," Gruber said. "I haven't thrown too much distance-wise, so it's a little sore. But if I continue to take care of myself, everything will be all right."
Key takes a few lumps
Left-hander Jimmy Key gave up four runs (two earned) on eight hits over five innings and took his first loss, but said he is right where he wants to be at this point.
"Physically, I'm great," Key said. "I just didn't make as many good pitches as I've been making."
Alomar getting close
Second baseman Roberto Alomar did not make the two-day trip to Fort Myers, but he could be in the starting lineup this weekend. He has been sidelined for the past month by a severe ankle sprain.
"He's doing a lot of baseball things," Johnson said. "He's hitting off the tee and jogging. I think when he's ready to go, he'll be ready to do everything he needs to do."
Alomar figures to get into only a week's worth of games here in Florida, then will have to find a way to stay in playing shape during his five-game suspension.
More injury updates
Tarasco still is experiencing soreness in his right quadriceps.
Outfielder Pete Incaviglia has a strain or bruise of the rib cage, and got yesterday off.
Pub Date: 3/18/97