Batista's lukewarm play has Hargrove in a boil


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles third baseman Tony Batista made a defensive lapse yesterday that seemed to push manager Mike Hargrove past the boiling point.

Normally reserved as he watches spring games from a chair next to the Orioles' dugout, Hargrove stormed from his seat during the second inning after watching Batista miss a throw from catcher Geronimo Gil with a Montreal Expos runner trying to steal third base.

It looked like a sure out, but the ball bounced into left field, allowing the runner to score.

Granted, it's only spring training, and Hargrove had just come out to argue a call with the plate umpire, so his blood already was steaming. But for Batista, the Orioles' only All-Star last season, it has been that kind of spring.

In three days, Batista has had three lapses that have left the Orioles scratching their heads. On Friday, he was thrown out at second base after failing to run hard on a ball hit down the left-field line for what should have been an easy double. On Saturday, Batista was slow reacting to a ball hit down the third base line for a two-run double.

Yesterday, with the Orioles playing their first exhibition game of the year televised in Baltimore - a 3-0 loss - Hargrove could take no more.

"The play at third base where we had the runner thrown out was terribly frustrating," Hargrove said when asked about the team's overall sloppy play.

"That ball's got to be caught, plain and simple. Tony just tried to make the tag too quick. That was frustrating."

Hargrove has had more than one conversation with Batista this spring to address the veteran's work ethic. Batista has been nursing a sore right knee and has been limited to 12 games, while the rest of the regulars have played closer to 16 or 17.

After going 0-for-2 yesterday with a strikeout and a weak tapper back to the mound, Batista is batting a hefty .394. But after leading the Orioles with 31 homers last season, he has yet to hit one this spring.

Batista listened to questions yesterday addressing these concerns and said, "If tomorrow was Opening Day, I'd be ready." He kept repeating it for emphasis, and the Orioles hope he's right.

Last season, Batista's readiness was apparent immediately. On Opening Day, he hit a grand slam off Roger Clemens that propelled the Orioles to a 10-3 victory over the New York Yankees.

Batista had six homers and 24 RBIs by the end of April and played the first 25 games without making an error. But he played in a career-high 161 games and tired down the stretch, batting .174 in September and finishing the season with 16 errors.

"Every year, I have a slow time hitting," Batista said. "Sometimes it happens in the beginning, sometimes it happens in the end. Last season it was September."

As for the recent string of lapses, Batista said, "It's going to happen. When we're playing that kind of game, it's going to happen. It can happen in the spring, or it can happen in the season. It's a bad moment; you're going to have them no matter what you do, no matter what type of player you are."

This year, Batista will make $6 million, and the Orioles have an option for next season at the same price. They can pick up that option or let Batista walk via free agency.

Batista, 29, insists he doesn't expect special treatment.

"It doesn't matter if you've got 10 years in the major leagues, the game is the same," he said. "One good thing about this game is when you put on the uniform, everybody's a player, everybody can do the job, and everybody's going to make an error one time."

Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo continues to work with Batista on his defense, and Batista has been taking extra ground balls each morning, trying to make it right.

"It's spring training, and he's a veteran player," Hargrove said when pressed about Batista's recent play. "With veteran players, I'm willing to go a little further than I would with a rookie player. Tony's been doing this a long time. He knows what he needs to do to get ready for the season. He's doing extra work in the mornings, and he's swinging the bat well, so I don't know what else to tell you."

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