- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. His nomadic existence is over, as are his days of sitting anxiously in the dugout. For the first time in his major league career, Gary Matthews Jr. is a starter on a club filled with players he considers to be friends.
"The biggest difference for me is coming in and knowing the rest of your teammates," he said. "I know these guys. Being here last year, I'm familiar with the coaching staff, my teammates, the community. It makes it easier to play, it's easier on my mind. There aren't as many ifs out there."
After being obtained last April from the New York Mets in a trade for pitcher John Bale, Matthews established career highs in games (109), batting average (.276), doubles (25) and slugging percentage (.427). Those numbers probably would have been better if he didn't miss most of the final month with tendinitis in his right wrist.
His value to the Orioles can be measured in how they fared without him. Baltimore was 63-63 on Aug. 23, and Matthews went on the disabled list the following day. He didn't start the final 36 games, and the Orioles' record over that span was an unsightly 4-32.
He's healthy now, and has been given the job as the Orioles' starting center fielder. The promotion comes after a four-year run in which he played sparingly for San Diego, the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh and the Mets.
"There's no doubt this is the best baseball situation I've been in," he said.
Matthews did little to aid his push to be an everyday player until last season, when he rebounded from an 0-for-11 start in Baltimore to play well enough to become a regular.
Playing consistently enabled him to make the adjustments necessary to amass a batting average nearly 60 points higher than his career mark. His goal now is to continue the progression.
"I gained a lot of experience and a lot of confidence from last year," he said.
Which makes this season that much easier.
"You don't have so many outside factors; you know you have to come in, do your job and play the way you're capable," Matthews said. "You know going in what the team expects of you, and you know what to expect of yourself. It makes it so much easier on a player. I'd be lying if I said different."
Early this spring, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove had Matthews adjust his positioning in the outfield, moving him back a few steps because he had difficulty getting to balls hit over his head.
Now the manager would like to see Matthews make a slight improvement at the plate.
"I'd like to see Gary like make a little more consistent contact than he did last year. I thought there were times when he was a little too streaky," Hargrove said. "Gary's has the type of tools that if he makes consistent content, really good things have a chance to happen for him."
Hentgen beats Twins Pat Hentgen struck out five in six strong innings for his first victory of the spring and Eddy Garabito went 3-for-4 with a two-run triple yesterday as the Orioles beat the Minnesota Twins 4-3 in Fort Myers.
Hentgen allowed one run on five hits and two walks for the Orioles, helping his cause in the battle with Rick Helling to be Baltimore's No.5 starter.
"This was his best outing of the spring and he threw the ball well," Hargrove said. "It's going to be a tough decision, but he did well out there today."

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