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Youth rejuvenates Orioles

June 01, 2009|By DAVID GINSBURG

BALTIMORE -- It's fun to be a member of the Baltimore Orioles again. An influx of youth has created a sense of optimism within a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 1997.

While the arrival of former No. 1 draft pick Matt Wieters last Friday created a national buzz in Baltimore, the rebirth of the Orioles began several weeks earlier.

That's when the team began to rework a rotation that included journeymen Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson.

Eaton is gone and Hendrickson is in the bullpen. The starting five now include rookies Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken and David Hernandez -- all of whom earned wins in their major league debuts this season.

Wieters may turn out to be an All-Star catcher, but for now it's the guys throwing to him that have lifted the Orioles from their interminable funk.

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Bergesen is 2-2 and coming off a solid eight-inning stint in a win over Detroit. Berken is 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA and Hernandez is 1-0 with a 1.59 ERA.

"I honestly think we got energized when we started to upgrade the starting pitching," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "That has a way of feeding into our offense. We don't necessarily have to put up nine or 10 runs. The quality of the players is getting a little better; the talent level is getting better."

The Orioles have also benefited from the callup of outfielder Nolan Reimold, who made his major league debut on May 14 and has five homers, 16 hits and 11 RBIs in 60 at-bats.

"As long as I've been here we haven't done what we've done this year, as far as bringing up our younger guys, letting them go at it and having fun with it," fourth-year outfielder Nick Markakis said. "We brought up three young pitchers. We brought up Wieters and Reimold. We got a great group of young guys here. It's a different clubhouse, it's a different atmosphere and different attitude on the field."

Second baseman Brian Roberts, a relative old-timer at 31, said, "We're excited. We feel like we're moving in a positive direction."

The youth movement was orchestrated by Andy MacPhail, who took over as president of baseball operations in June 2007. MacPhail traded Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard for a total of 10 players, part of his agenda to fortify the once-thin farm system with plenty of talent. Just as important, MacPhail has refused to push players into the majors before they're ready to make the jump.

"Rebuilding is not only bringing a young guy to the big leagues. It's bringing a guy who has an idea what the big leagues are about, what winning is about," third baseman Melvin Mora said. "All the players they're bringing have an idea what they're doing, especially the pitchers, and now we have a guy, Wieters, who knows what to do behind the plate."

The process appears to be working. After sweeping a three-game series from Toronto, the Orioles took two in a row from Detroit, the Central Division leaders, before the Tigers rebounded to salvage a split of the four-game series that ended Sunday.

"This is a team that looks like they're getting some youth to go along with some of the other players. It looks good," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "It's the energy. You can see that."

The fans are picking up on it, too. Even though Baltimore is still in last place, more than 100,000 fans showed up for the final three games of the homestand.

And while it's unlikely the Orioles will compete for a playoff berth this season, it might not be long before they begin to put some pressure on the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the competitive AL East.

"As the season progresses, we expect to get better and we expect to have changes made when needed," manager Dave Trembley said. "It depends on the guys below and how they're doing. They come up here when they're ready to help."

During their five-game winning streak, center fielder Adam Jones and shortstop Robert Andino punctuated post-game interviews by foisting shaving-cream pies into the faces of Reimold, Bergesen and Hernandez. The ceremony was indicative of what it's like these days to be playing in Baltimore.

"It's an awesome feeling. It's fun," Markakis said. "I can't wait for the rest of the season."

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