Hairston leads Kirby near wire; Youngster given '95%' shot of staying; Ponson ready


ATLANTA -- The last roster decision facing the Orioles involves retaining either second baseman Jerry Hairston or outfielder Wayne Kirby, with momentum heavily in the young infielder's favor.

With vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift and manager Mike Hargrove scheduled to meet after this afternoon's exhibition against the Cincinnati Reds in Chattanooga, Tenn., Hairston stands a "95 percent chance" of making the Opening Day roster, according to a club official. Thrift conceded Kirby would likely be reassigned to Triple-A Rochester immediately after tomorrow's workout at Camden Yards.

"When we went south, we went with the idea of coming back with the best 25 guys," said Thrift. "I think Jerry's done about everything he could this spring to impress us."

Hairston entered last night's game in Atlanta batting .364 with two home runs and five RBIs. His 10 runs led the club. Kirby, who played for Hargrove with the Cleveland Indians, was hitting .163 with one home run, six RBIs and three steals in five attempts. His chances for making the team were greatly reduced when Brady Anderson returned from a three-day rehab assignment in Sarasota, Fla., ready to play.

Whatever move the Orioles make will be only temporary as Hargrove intends to promote Jose Mercedes as the team's 12th pitcher in time for an April 9 start. Barring complications, Hairston would then be optioned to play every day and rookie Jesus Garcia would remain as a utility infielder.

Hairston, 23, has played less than three years professionally, a factor Thrift maintains is often overlooked amid the clamor for him to unseat veteran Delino DeShields as starter.

"He's a very fast learner with good ability. It looks like he's going to be an excellent second baseman. But he's still a very young player, relatively new to the position, who has things to learn," said Thrift. "He's only been playing professionally since 1997 with a move from shortstop thrown in. There are still moves at the position he has to become comfortable with. That's to be expected."

The Orioles are virtually certain to send outfielder/designated hitter Derrick May to Rochester along with catcher Willie Morales. Both were signed last winter as minor-league free agents.

Ponson already ahead of '99

It's been a year since Sidney Ponson's last appearance of spring ended with an embarrassing and troubling one-inning start against the Philadelphia Phillies. Last night he closed out camp with five solid innings against the Atlanta Braves. Ponson left with a loss -- what else given the Orioles' five hits and shutout against six Braves pitchers? -- but also a sense of direction.

"I think I'm ready to start the season," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."

In 43 interminable pitches last April, Ponson threw for the cycle, surrendering two home runs, a triple and a double. Afterward, he confessed he wasn't ready to start the season, a statement he backed up with losses in his first two regular-season starts.

"I could tell I wasn't ready. Everybody knew that," he said of a day when he left Hoover Stadium near Birmingham, Ala., complaining that he had received neither the innings nor the corrective instruction to open the year. Last night Ponson appeared comfortable with his entire assortment. His only glaring mistake was an 0-2 slider that the Braves' Andruw Jones hammered for a fourth-inning home run. Ponson mixed in no more than five changeups while effectively spotting his fastball.

"I'm ready to get going and see what happens," he said.

Deals turn to duds

Conceding three failed acquisitions, the Orioles yesterday released outfielder Billy Ashley, first baseman Ray Brown and left-handed pitcher Darin Blood from their minor-league camp.

Ashley, a former star prospect with the Los Angeles Dodgers, received an invitation to major-league camp, received seven at-bats and was sent to Sarasota last week. It became obvious that Ashley's throwing limitations eliminated him from consideration as an outfielder. Projected as a designated hitter, Ashley was deemed a luxury given May's likely having the same role.

Brown, 28, is relegated to a trivia answer as the player to be named in the trade that sent infielder Jeff Reboulet to the Kansas City Royals last December. Brown's career crested with 140 at-bats at Triple-A Las Vegas in 1997. He batted .352, .318 and .318 at Double-A the last three seasons.

The Orioles acquired Blood, 25, from the San Francisco Giants in return for outfielder Joe Carter in July 1998. Once a 17-game winner at Single-A San Jose, Blood's career crashed after the trade. He was 3-2 with a 2.48 ERA at Rochester in 1998 but was 0-4 with an 8.66 ERA in 12 appearances last season after undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery to remove a bone spur.

The streak lives

Halfway around the globe, Cal Ripken's major-league record for consecutive errorless chances escaped challenge when New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez whiffed on a first-inning grounder against the Chicago Cubs in the second game of their made-for-Japan series.

Ordonez handled 418 consecutive chances without an error, 10 shy of Ripken's mark set in 1990. Ordonez broke Ripken's major-league record of 95 consecutive error-free games last season, eventually stretching it to 101 before Thursday's gaffe.

Around the horn

Last night's loss to the Braves was the Orioles' ninth in 12 games, dropping them to 13-15 overall. With only today's spring finale remaining, the Orioles are assured of nothing better than a two-game win streak this spring. Their only long losing streak was a five-game skid from March 21-25. Stuffed by Terry Mulholland for four shutout innings, the Orioles tumbled to 3-9 this spring against left-handed starters. They have been held to three runs or fewer in nine of their last 16 games. The Orioles are expected to decide upon a new location for their minor-league training facility within the next "two to three weeks," executive vice president John Angelos said. The Orioles are examining nine sites, with the Montreal Expos' abandoned facility in Lantana, Fla., a leading contender.

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