Valentin must prove he has tools to be utility man for O's


PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - John Valentin wanted the opportunity to show the Orioles he could play third base. For the past two days, they've given it to him.

Valentin started again in place of Tony Batista, going 1-for-2 with three RBIs in the Orioles' 15-6 romp over the New York Mets. Batista didn't make the trip, but manager Mike Hargrove said it wasn't for health reasons.

"We're just trying to give him a break," Hargrove said. "It's just a chance to look at [Valentin]. It has nothing to do with Tony. It has everything to do with getting a good look at John."

Batista hasn't been listed on any injury reports, and he worked out yesterday at Fort Lauderdale Stadium while the Orioles were improving their record to 3-1. He'll accompany them to Viera for today's game against the Montreal Expos.

Signed to a minor-league contract on Jan. 30, Valentin is trying to make the club as a utility infielder.

"I don't feel like that's going to be a problem as long as I'm healthy," he said. "And I'm healthy."

Valentin, 36, stresses this point after having reconstructive surgery on his left knee in 2000, which ended his season on June 1. He appeared in only 20 games with the Boston Red Sox the next year, and signed a minor-league deal with the Mets in 2002.

Often handcuffed by a thin, offensively challenged bench, Hargrove could use Valentin's pop in the later innings. He drove in 102 runs with the Red Sox in 1995, but only 30 last season in 208 at-bats.

"John brings an offensive side to the utility role that other people don't," Hargrove said.

Valentin isn't a consistent fielder, which was evident in Saturday's game against the Mets, when he misplayed two balls in succession before making a diving stop to begin a double play. A former shortstop, he's probably better suited for the corners.

His primary competition comes from middle infielders Jeff Reboulet and Brian Roberts. Melvin Mora can play just about anywhere in the field, which makes him one of the team's most marketable commodities.

If the Orioles leave camp with four bench players and no trades are made involving the utility candidates, it's likely only two of them will stay with the team. Mora would be a lock, and Roberts probably would report to Triple-A Ottawa.

"All I can basically do is play hard, stay healthy and let everything take care of itself," Valentin said. "If I'm not a fit here, hopefully I'll be a fit somewhere else."

"It's going to come down," Hargrove said, "to whether we're looking for someone in a utility role who swings the bat. We can do that if the other guy we carry is very efficient with the glove.

"We talk a lot about being mentally tough and mentally disciplined. [Valentin] made an error on a bad hop on a fairly routine play. We should have been out of the inning. A lot of people, especially young players, might have been embarrassed and mad at themselves, but he stayed tough."

Valentin had no choice this winter when baseball's changing economics denied him a major-league contract and forced him to sign late.

"I think it was difficult for a lot of guys," he said. "It was an offseason of adjustments with everything. There were a lot of people that were in my situation that haven't signed. It just took longer than I thought it would."

Strong pitching

Orioles pitchers retired 18 Mets in a row after Cliff Floyd crushed a two-run homer off Rodrigo Lopez in the first inning. The streak was broken when catcher Joe DePastino reached on an infield hit in the seventh inning.

Two of the first three Mets reached against Lopez before their offensive brownout - which clashed with the orange jerseys. Travis Driskill tossed two perfect innings in his bid to make the team as a long reliever.

Driskill has no shot at the starting rotation, and his bullpen chances hinge on whether Hargrove keeps 12 pitchers. Even if that happens, he might get squeezed out after making 29 appearances with the Orioles as a rookie last season.

"Travis is a very confident guy," Hargrove said. "He doesn't change his demeanor or personality. He's a very good competitor, knows what it is that makes him tick and stays with it. He won't short-circuit his chances to make this ballclub. A lot of people do because of too much pressure."

Tough outing for Bale

Mets left-handed reliever John Bale, his career riddled with injuries, was healthy enough yesterday to face his former team. He should have wished for another trip to the disabled list. The injury report would read: bruised ego.

Bale was the third pitcher used by manager Art Howe. He retired only two batters in the fourth inning, both on sacrifice flies, and gave up seven runs. Bale allowed six hits, walked one and hit a batter, and left to a chorus of boos.

The first hitter he faced, Gary Matthews, came to the Orioles in an April 3 trade for Bale. Matthews singled into left field to begin the onslaught, and he ended it with a three-run double.

The Bale-Matthews trade was the last pulled off by the Orioles and former vice president Syd Thrift. The Orioles had given up former No. 1 draft pick Jayson Werth to obtain Bale.

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