- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

VIERA, Fla. Six weeks ago, even the most zealous fans of the Baltimore Orioles couldn't have known who Willis Roberts was.

Five days from now, he'll join his teammates in walking into Camden Yards from center field as his name is announced to a capacity crowd on Opening Day.

Roberts, a 25-year-old rookie, all but assured himself a spot on Baltimore's pitching staff last night with yet another overpowering performance. In five innings, the right-hander gave up one earned run and four hits, walked none and struck out seven during the Orioles' 6-2 loss to the Florida Marlins.

Whether he is named Baltimore's No. 5 starter or a member of the bullpen remains to be seen. Either way, it's now obvious Roberts will be on the 25-man roster when the season starts Monday.

"I think the opportunity is here," Roberts said. "I try not to think about it too much, but I like the organization. I know I've got good stuff. I want to do the same as I did tonight every time."

Making his third and final start of the spring, Roberts continued to overpower batters with a fastball clocked in the mid-90s and a tough split-finger. After giving up a single to leadoff man Luis Castillo in the first inning, Roberts retired the next eight batters.

He made just two mistakes, resulting in a double by Castillo in the fourth and a solo home run by former Oriole Charles Johnson in the fifth. Roberts apparently wasn't fazed by the homer, because he went on to strike out the side to complete his evening.

Roberts and left-hander Chuck McElroy are battling for the last spot in the starting rotation. Hargrove and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift appear to be leaning toward McElroy, a career reliever looking to make the move to the rotation. McElroy, though, remains possible trade bait, particularly if the team feels confident inserting Roberts into the rotation.

So how did it come to this, a 25-year-old who spent the last eight seasons in the Detroit and Cincinnati minor league systems suddenly becoming a prime candidate for a starting job in the major leagues?

Hargrove had heard good things about the 6-foot-3 pitcher when the Orioles signed him as a six-year minor league free agent after a strong showing in the Dominican winter league (6-1, with a 1.66 ERA).

When Roberts arrived in Fort Lauderdale this spring, he was virtually unknown, a faceless non-roster invitee given a uniform number (79) reserved for someone not expected to make the club.

Hargrove noted his live arm during an early bullpen session, then was dazzled by a Roberts' one-inning appearance in an early spring training game. "His stuff was electric," Hargrove recalled.

Roberts began making more appearances after that, eventually working his way into the spring rotation. He made his first start March 17 against St. Louis, though a pair of veteran players had no idea who he was upon glancing at the day's starting lineup. Three scoreless innings later, Roberts had arrived.

He upped his production to five scoreless innings in his last start March 22 vs. Minnesota, then continued his impressive run last night. In 19 innings this spring, Roberts has a 2.37 ERA and 22 strikeouts while holding opponents to a .206 batting average.

Still, few could have projected when camp opened that he would emerge as the organization's top young pitcher.

"No," Hargrove admitted. "You try to come into camp with an open mind. I tell people that all the time, and I think it's true. But, no, I couldn't have projected that at all."

Notes First baseman David Segui, out since March 12 with a pulled hamstring, made the three-hour trip to Viera with the Orioles and could play today when the two teams meet again. Segui has just 20 plate appearances this spring, but Hargrove said the veteran probably needed only a couple of games to get his timing back for the regular season… .

Cal Ripken was 0-for-3 in his fourth game back since recovering from a fractured rib. The third baseman, who is now 1-for-11 at the plate, didn't get the ball out of the infield, grounding twice to third (reaching the second time on a force out) and once to second in six innings… .

Alan Mills, still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, struggled in his one inning. The veteran right-hander was the victim of a monstrous home run by Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd in the sixth inning that cleared the 30-foot high batter's eye in center field 404 feet from home plate.


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