MINNEAPOLIS - Eugene Kingsale's season was supposed to end two days before the close of spring training. It never should have left Sarasota, Fla. It never should have reached the Orioles.
Those were the challenges he faced, ones few people in the organization expected him to meet. But Kingsale rehabbed a torn quadriceps muscle, first with rest, then with a series of treatments and exercises. He played at four levels of the minor-league system, then defied the odds some more by receiving a promotion to the Orioles last Friday.
"I think I deserve to be where I am today," he said. "I'm proud of myself."
Proud, and playing.
Kingsale has started three consecutive games in center field and four of the past five heading into the series in Anaheim that begins tonight. Coincidentally, it took an injury to Luis Matos to keep him in the lineup and allow manager Mike Hargrove to begin evaluating him along with some other prospects who have been added to the roster.
So far, Kingsale has ripped a double in his first plate appearance, gone hitless in eight straight at-bats and collected three singles and an RBI in Tuesday's 6-5 win in Minnesota. The first Aruban to reach the majors in 1996, Kingsale is batting .250 in five games.
"He's been a little inconsistent, but I've liked what I've seen," Hargrove said.
Kingsale, 24, has made the strongest impression with his glove, influencing the outcome of Monday's game with two spectacular catches in right-center field. The clincher, with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth, included a face-first crash into the Metrodome fence that preserved a 3-2 victory.
"Defensively, I've been very, very impressed," Hargrove said. "He and Matos are totally different. Matos is the kind of center fielder that gets good jumps and just appears at the ball. You're like, 'How did he do that?' Kingsale, you can physically see him outrun the ball. In football, they call it closing speed."
In baseball, he was felled by what best could be described as rotten luck. Kingsale was slated to begin the season at Triple-A Rochester until the injury, which occurred as he attempted to leave the batter's box.
"I kind of slipped and I felt it. I kept playing and reinjured it," he said.
The goal wasn't to rejoin the Orioles, who provided him with 85 at-bats last season after an Aug. 29 call-up. He just wanted to put on a uniform again, a suitable reward for all the squats, agility tests and running. Kingsale went 5-for-16 in the Gulf Coast League and was assigned to Single-A Frederick. Six games there led to another promotion, this time to Double-A Bowie. Three games later, he was off the 60-day disabled list and in Rochester's lineup.
"Nobody thought I was going to play this year," said Kingsale, who hit a combined .385 (20-for-52) on his rehab assignments. "Even the doctor said I would be out for the season. But I worked hard, man. I was focusing on trying to come back and play. I didn't know it would be the big leagues. That's a plus for me."
As he moved through the farm system, Kingsale began thinking more about the Orioles.
"I figured if I got healthy and started playing before the end of August, I might have a shot," he said. "All that hard work paid off."
While he tried to remain patient as his body healed, Kingsale saw Matos go from Bowie to the majors and become a regular in center field. Matos had moved in as part of the Orioles' youth movement. Kingsale had become invisible.
"I was really happy for him," Kingsale said. "Luis is my friend. I know he's a good player. He was just ready at the right time. I called him and congratulated him. I knew if I got healthy again, I'd be playing somewhere, if not here, then somewhere else."
This is where the Orioles will need to make a decision. Syd Thrift, vice president of baseball operations, said Kingsale is out of options after being activated and sent to Rochester. He'll play winter ball in the Dominican Republic and hope for a chance to compete for a job in spring training. He won't be going back to the minors without passing through waivers.
"He ought to be ready to play in the big leagues next year if he continues to progress," Thrift said.
Kingsale hasn't hurt his chances by continuing to fill out. He was once a scrawny slap hitter, but a weight-training program has made him stronger and enabled him to drive the ball. It took 1,028 professional at-bats before Kingsale hit his first home run two years ago at Bowie. He smacked five of them last season and two during his rehab tour.
Hitting coach Terry Crowley has noticed the changes, but he's focusing on other areas, like Kingsale's vulnerability to breaking pitches. Minnesota's Brad Radke fed him a steady diet of them during Wednesday's game.
"Geno hasn't touched one yet," Crowley said.
"He saw the ball going down, and he was going up [with his swing]. Those two things don't mix. Where we go from here is a big thing. I have every confidence we'll work that out."
Considering how far he's already come this year, Kingsale's not likely to be tripped up.
Opponent: Anaheim Angels
Site: Edison International Field, Anaheim, Calif.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Pat Rapp (7-10, 5.86) vs. Angels' Ramon Ortiz (4-5, 6.19)