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Back-loaded home spring schedule gives Orioles chance to warm up for Opening Day

As they stood glancing at a lineup card that will include their names through the end of the exhibition season and beyond, Orioles fixtures Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop switched their attention to a plate appearance chart that tracked their spring workload.

Hardy, who took his first road trip of the spring Monday and is one of several projected starters used almost exclusively in home games, felt at that moment the mental impact of a schedule that included many early road trips and a disjointed routine for players back in Sarasota.

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"It was just kind of a surprise, really, to see where everyone's at," Hardy said Thursday morning. "If you'd asked me how many at-bats I had, I would have told you I was somewhere in the 20s. I've got 34 [plate appearances]. I had no idea."

Hardy might not feel like he has been that busy, but he should be up to speed by this time next week thanks to a back-loaded schedule of home games this spring. The Orioles play six of their last eight Grapefruit League games at Ed Smith Stadium, beginning with Thursday's win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, before heading north for an April 1 exhibition in Philadelphia.

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The Orioles asked for this schedule so the regulars will get plenty of work just before camp breaks.

"We've known about it since the schedule came out," Hardy said. "It's one of those [where you] get your legs underneath you, get your at-bats, but now it starts to get a little more consistent, where you can string together 12 to 15 at-bats in a few days as opposed to getting 12 to 15 at-bats in a week and a half.

"We've known about it, and it's good. I think everybody's where they need to be, and now we can kind of get a little bit more consistent."

Any kind of routine is hard to come by for the players who aren't making regular bus trips around Florida's west coast this month. On some days, there are home games to prepare for. On others, it's just a work day while their lower-profile teammates travel.

And on the rare spring night games, the early morning report time is pushed back and the habits created on other days are moot.

That's why players such as Hardy feel like they aren't as far along as they actually are, and first baseman Chris Davis asked earlier this week to go to the Orioles' minor league spring training complex across Sarasota on Tuesday to cram in as many at-bats in the two games as possible.

"You have a day game, then you have a night game," Davis said. "Sometimes you're playing, sometimes you're not. As everyday players, you want to try to get back into your routine and do everything that you can to feel comfortable and get yourself ready to play so it's kind of a guessing game, so-to-speak, early in spring.

"The schedule's not really consistent, and I think that's what [Tuesday] was about, just trying to have some consistency in your at-bats and your approach."

Davis was the only starter to make the Wednesday trip to Bradenton, and he asked into the game that morning.He was also in the lineup for Thursday's win.

It hasn't always been that way this spring for the Orioles. As a team, they entered Thursday batting .247 with a .700 OPS — 27th and 28th in baseball, respectively. Thursday was just the Orioles' sixth win of the spring, and the pitching staff had pitched to a league-worst 6.36 ERA and a 1.75 WHIP entering the game.

Some legitimate concern has been raised about individual performances behind those numbers, but manager Buck Showalter said his veteran group is set up to be in a great place come Opening Day on April 4.

"We obviously played more games on the road [early], and it's designed where we can really finish off some things that we need to to feel good coming out of the spring," Showalter said. "We took a lot of lumps with the spring training schedule so we could get it right here at the end. So I'm looking forward to the rest of our time down because now we get a return for some of the challenges we had with the schedule early."

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Thursday's lineup featured Christian Walker in left field and Matt Wieters at designated hitter, with Caleb Joseph behind the plate. Otherwise, it was a full-strength lineup, one that showed its potential. Davis had his second extra-base hit of Grapefruit League play, a run-scoring double in the fourth inning. Right fielder Mark Trumbo homered for the third time in four games, and fourth time this spring later that inning. Schoop led off the fifth inning with a home run to deep left field. Schoop and Trumbo each had two this.

Even players who aren't entrenched in the lineup but figure heavily into the 2016 roster discussion will be used heavily before camp breaks in a week. Showalter said first baseman/designated hitter Pedro Alvarez and left fielder Hyun Soo Kim could be in the lineup every day after taking a trip to get extra at-bats at Twin Lakes Park on Thursday.

Alvarez signed on March 10 and is trying to catch up, but Kim represents one of the only position questions this stretch of home games can answer.

On Thursday, it was Walker in left field for the second time this spring. Walker, Kim and Nolan Reimold are the prime candidates to win the starting job, and hot-hitting Rule 5 outfielder Joey Rickard could be part of that conversation if he makes the club.

Otherwise, it will be tinkering to optimize a powerful but unbalanced lineup, watching the pitching staff fall into place and waiting for April 4. The stretch of home games is welcome, but signifies for the entire team that Opening Day is near.

"Spring training just tends to fly by," reliever Darren O'Day said. "It really does. I feel like I just got here, and now there's boxes to go north to Baltimore. I see the equipment truck out there. Certainly, we'd like to get some good games under our belt these next few days to have a little momentum going north."

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