Orioles' middle infield situation becomes clearer in 8-5 loss to Phillies

It will be at least another week before the Orioles’ 25-man Opening Day roster begins to crystallize and it will be possible to project a starting lineup, but the middle infield situation is coming into focus.

Second baseman Jonathan Villar got off to a slow start at the plate this spring, but reached base all three times up and scored twice Sunday in the Orioles’ 8-5 Grapefruit League loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Ed Smith Stadium.

Veteran shortstop Alcides Escobar came into the game with a .300 exhibition batting average and went 1-for-3 with a run-scoring double.

If manager Brandon Hyde wants to put more of an emphasis on experience at the most important defensive area on the field, he could do a lot worse.

If he wants the Orioles to be a very aggressive team on the bases, that’s another reason to have Villar in the lineup as much as possible.

“I love that a lot,” Villar said. “That’s my game. I’ve done that since Little League. I don’t know what comes over me when I steal a base. I need to run. I need to be aggressive when I get on base.”

Villar has some adjusting to do defensively at second base, but he’s the most accomplished base runner on the team and he’s enjoying the opportunity to flash his base-stealing skill in front of a new coaching staff. He stole his third base of the spring in the third inning and said he hopes to steal 40 or more during the regular season.

That will depend on how much he plays, but it’s far from a pipe dream. He led the major leagues with 62 in 2016 with the Milwaukee Brewers, who sent him to the O’s in the trade for Jonathan Schoop last July.

“That's his game,” Hyde said. “We're going to keep encouraging him to put pressure on the defense, and run at good times, and I like his aggressive nature on the bases. We're going to continue to encourage him to do it.”

Hyde has been evaluating several infield candidates and has said he is not yet close to making a decision on the starters at second and short. Rule 5 draftee Richie Martin has made a strong case for himself at shortstop and must make the team to stay in the organization. Escobar is a former All-Star and Gold Glove winner who is having a strong spring, so — at the very least — he’s very likely to be on the Opening Day roster.

The Orioles are auditioning utility prospects, but Villar doesn’t appear to be facing a serious challenge at second base. He has said from the start of spring that he prefers to play shortstop, but it isn’t hard for him to see how that situation is shaping up.

“I will play anywhere,” he said. “I like shortstop. Right now, I’m playing second base. It’s the same game.”

He came to Sunday’s game with just two hits in his first 20 at-bats, but with his base-stealing potential, the more important statistic is on-base percentage. Following his two-hit performance against the Phillies, his OBP is up to .296. Last year, in 54 games with the Orioles, it was a solid .336.

Villar said he hasn’t been concerned about his slow start at the plate.

“Right now, I feel like I’m going to be ready for the season,” Villar said. “I’m not ready yet, but in a couple more days, I feel like I’ll be ready.

Solid relief

Of the pitchers who followed starter Josh Rogers to the mound, Miguel Castro, Paul Fry and Brandon Kline all delivered scoreless appearances. Castro pitched a one-hit fifth inning; Fry pitched two hitless innings and Kline bounced back from that walk-off homer in Bradenton to pitch a scoreless ninth.

“I thought we had a lot of guys throw the ball well. [Rogers] gave us three-plus good innings … Showcased some good stuff,” Hyde said. “I thought he pitched really, really well. Fry was good. Kline was good there at the end. Castro was throwing 98 [mph] with a nasty slider, so I thought we did a lot of really good things today, especially the first, six, seven innings.”

Right-hander Pedro Araujo was the exception, allowing three runs on four hits in the eighth inning to take the loss.

Third straight sellout

The Orioles sold out Ed Smith Stadium for all three games this weekend, drawing a total of 22,915 for the three games against the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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