BOSTON -- In three hours yesterday afternoon, Jerome Walton provided a microcosm of his eight-year major-league career.

For seven innings, he scorched the Boston Red Sox with three hits, scoring twice and driving in a run during the pivotal fourth inning. But when the game ended, Walton was a no-show on the handshake line. A muscle pull had forced him to the trainer's room.

The 1989 National League Rookie of the Year, he again demonstrated to the 1997 Orioles why he remains a valuable resource if healthy. Walton's walk plus three singles gave him hits in seven consecutive at-bats and meant that he has reached base in his last eight plate appearances. For a guy who barely made the club this spring, he represents a potential find.

Walton knows if not for the intervention of manager Davey Johnson, he may have become a casualty to general manager Pat Gillick's final roster trim.

"I was very close to not even making the ballclub. I know Pat had concerns about my health. I think Davey went to bat for me to make the ballclub," he said.

Walton now bats for Johnson. For the past four games he has played in place of the injured Eric Davis and then-slumping B. J. Surhoff. His initial output was a discouraging 0-for-7. Since, he is 7-for-7. Yesterday's performance was tarnished by a familiar problem, a leg muscle pull that jeopardizes his presence today.

"I love playing for Davey," he said. "I know he believes in what I can do. He's given me a chance to play, which is all I can ask for."

As for the Orioles, they just want Walton able to play. He has not taken more than 165 major-league at-bats in any season since 1991. Currently, Walton is batting .476 in 21 at-bats. Such a pace would give him more than 240 at-bats under Johnson's time-share arrangement.

It's a deal Walton can live with. The Atlanta Braves signed Walton for last season then steamed over a mysterious injury that limited him to 47 at-bats. When healthy, he batted .340. When injured, he became an enigma.

Walton, an Atlanta resident who wanted to remain with the Braves, was initially diagnosed with a hernia but failed to respond to treatment. Later, he was discovered to have pulled a muscle near his groin. The Braves privately questioned Walton's desire to play and made no effort to re-sign him this spring.

An abdominal muscle pull cost Walton much of spring training. If not for Johnson, whom he played for in Cincinnati, Walton would likely be playing in Triple-A.

"I did go to bat for him. I went to bat for him the whole way," said Johnson. "I know how good he can play. I was not going to lose him.

"I did have conversations with [Walton]. I was telling him, 'Look, I need you. I need you healthy. I'll go to bat for you. But you've got to be ready.' He said he'd be ready for the season. We've had some miserable weather. But he's been ready to play every time I've gone to him."

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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