- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Willis Roberts might be the Baltimore Orioles' closer this season. He could be their setup man. If the need arises, the right-hander can even start.
Roberts, who handled all three chores last season, doesn't really care how the Orioles use him this year.
Just so long as they use him.
Before last season, Roberts' eight years in professional baseball consisted of 192 games in the minor leagues and just one appearance in the majors. Signed by the Orioles as a free agent, he decided that 2001 would be his make-or-break year.
"I talked to my family and my agent, and decided that if I don't play in the big leagues, I would go play in Japan or Korea," Roberts said. "But last year, I played in the big leagues, finally, and now all I want to do is work hard, do my job and stay here."
If he's the closer, fine. Starter? No problem. Whatever. Roberts, 26, knows better than to make his role an issue.
That philosophy served him well last year, when he began the season in the starting rotation and finished as the team's closer. He was 9-10 with a 4.91 ERA, throwing one complete game and converting six of 10 save opportunities.
Because of Roberts' inexperience, the Orioles are hesitant to anoint him their closer. But with his talent, it probably won't be long before he settles into the job.
"He's got a great arm a 95 mph fastball, an 88 mph slider and a great split finger. You want your closer to have three dominating pitches," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles vice president for baseball operations.
A year ago, Baltimore gave the closer's job to Ryan Kohlmeier, who, like Roberts, possessed a young arm and little experience as a closer. Kohlmeier didn't last long, and now he's back in the minor leagues.
Roberts shudders at the thought of taking that route.
"My career is starting right now," Roberts said. "Now that I've got a chanced to throw in the big leagues, I want to stay in the big leagues."
The Orioles certainly want him around. They're just not sure where.
"He'll start somewhere in the back end of the bullpen," pitching coach Mark Wiley said.
Fortunately, Roberts is not a creature of habit. One day he'll show up with cornrows, and the next he'll be tucking a tight Afro under his cap.
He has a red baseball glove, an orange one and a silver model that he's getting ready for game action.
"I like to be different," he said. "I don't want to copy all the players. I want to do what I like."
That's why Roberts won't change his fist-pumping style on the mound. After a key strikeout or a pivotal pitch, he isn't shy about displaying his emotions.
"It's just me. It comes from inside me," Roberts said. "If a hitter hits a home run and says something to me, I don't care. So I don't think he should care what I do."
The Orioles hope that Roberts can make a habit of celebrating good pitches in the ninth inning, perhaps as soon as April.
"He can be our closer," Wiley said. "It's just a matter of him maturing and getting used to that role."


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