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Hairston headed down to Rochester today; Needing room for Mercedes, club gently breaks news to talented second baseman


To make room for starting pitcher Jose Mercedes, the Orioles will officially option second baseman Jerry Hairston to Rochester before this afternoon's game against the Detroit Tigers. Usually a formality, the club took extra measures to ensure that the 23-year-old left town with a positive attitude.

Hairston met for more than 15 minutes before yesterday's game with manager Mike Hargrove and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. Hargrove and Thrift emphasized Hairston's importance to the organization, and Hairston further defused any suggestion that he was unhappy with the club.

"It was a great, great meeting," Hairston said.

The Orioles wrangled over whether to option Hairston or utility player Jesus Garcia. Ultimately, the desire for Hairston to play daily at a set position became the deciding factor. Hargrove, who believes in maintaining a set lineup as much as possible, has been given no reason to sit starter Delino DeShields, who produced yesterday's game-winning RBI and is hitting .300 with five runs and two stolen bases.

"Right now Jerry's a very talented player, and he's going to be an excellent player. But we've got another talented player who's playing very well ahead of him," Hargrove said.

Irritated in March over having his contract renewed by the club, Hairston had repeatedly insisted he feels there is nothing left for him to learn at Triple-A. He supported his position with a solid spring training.

Hairston on Friday denied reports that he or his agent, Casey Close, had asked the club to trade him. He reiterated his position yesterday, saying, "I want to play here, in this town. It's a great place." Hairston, who did not appear in any of the Orioles' five games, said his biggest disappointment over being optioned was likely missing Cal Ripken's pending 3,000th hit.

"I'm just going to go out and play the game," Hairston said. "That's really about it. If I didn't play well, I'd feel bad about this. But there was nothing I could do. I'm not down at all."

Erickson takes another step

Even before yesterday's 2-1 win over the Tigers, a significant three-inning game played out in the bullpen. Scott Erickson and his right elbow pushed through 45 pitches without a problem, and he may be pointed toward a rehab assignment when the club returns from its six-game road trip to Kansas City and Minnesota.

Erickson threw his complete assortment -- sliders, curveballs, cutters and changeups. He completed a warm-up, sat, then threw three innings of 15 pitches each with cool-down periods in between. Pitching coach Sammy Ellis left the session excited by what he had seen and estimated Erickson was throwing with "80 to 85 percent" velocity.

Having undergone arthroscopic surgery for removal of bone chips from his right elbow, Erickson is approaching the six-to-eight week window projected by the team for his return.

"I can't give you an exact date because this isn't an exact science," Ellis said.

Erickson will throw a four-inning simulated game in Kansas City, Ellis said, then follow with another in Minnesota.

"We'll evaluate where we are then," he said.

Erickson won't announce a target date for his return, and the Orioles have followed his lead.

"I can't tell you when I'm going to throw again, so I can't tell you when I'll be back. It's ridiculous to try," Erickson said.

Clark's fast start

Will Clark always has been a dangerous hitter with a bat in his hands. This season, he's doing almost as much damage with it propped on his shoulder.

Going into yesterday's game, Clark led the American League with a .636 average and .765 on-base percentage. He was tied for second in walks with six, often setting the table for catcher Charles Johnson and shortstop Mike Bordick. He also has been rewarded for his patience by scoring seven runs, tied for first in the league with Tampa Bay's Greg Vaughn.

Yesterday, he appeared on the verge of passing Vaughn. He led off the fifth inning with a double to center field off Tigers starter Hideo Nomo, the ball taking one hop over the fence as Juan Encarnacion gave chase. But Nomo retired the next three batters without the ball leaving the infield.

It was a rare instance when the Orioles didn't follow Clark's lead.

The bottom third of the order -- Clark, Johnson and Bordick -- began yesterday hitting .450 (18-for-40) with two doubles, six homers and 17 RBIs. Clark went 1-for-3 with a walk. Johnson singled in four trips. Bordick was 2-for-4 and scored twice, including the decisive run in the Orioles' victory.

For Clark, who has reached base in 15 of his 21 appearances, the fast start is nothing new.

Entering this season, Clark had a lifetime average of .312 in the season's first month. He was hitting .370 last year before fracturing his left thumb on April 18 and making his first stop on the disabled list.

"You work the whole spring training to get ready for Opening Day and the first part of the season," he said. "I try to concentrate on having a good first few weeks of the season. If you're hitting .300 or .330, it's always easier to maintain that than hitting .250 and working your way back."

Johnson pitches well

The six shutout innings thrown by Jason Johnson for Triple-A Rochester on Friday were encouraging to Hargrove. They weren't, however, an incentive to bring him back to the majors anytime soon.

Johnson, who pitched himself out of the rotation as the No. 3 starter, and into the minors, must continue to make amends for the 52 baserunners he allowed in 22 innings this spring. One start at Rochester, no matter how promising, won't be enough.

"The thing is, we know the talent that Jason has, but for Jason to pitch here competitively, he can't pitch like he did in spring training," Hargrove said. "The report I got was that Jason threw the ball very, very well, which is encouraging. If he continues to do that, I would imagine that you'd see Jason here fairly soon. But that's something down the road a little bit."

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