- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

BALTIMORE | The Baltimore Orioles are doing everything they can to take pressure off top prospect Matt Wieters, but it hasn’t been easy.

Since his debut four weeks ago, the 23-year-old catcher has hit seventh or eighth in the lineup, where he is likely to see more fastballs. Wieters has never played more than six days in a row, allowing him to get a feel for major league pitching without being overwhelmed. Backup catcher Gregg Zaun won’t even answer questions about him; Zaun said he believes it’s in Wieters’ best interests not to contribute to the hype.

Most of all, the Orioles are preaching patience with Wieters and have insisted he needs time to blossom into the superstar so many expect him to become.

“Let’s not expect that this guy is going to be a world-beater right off the bat,” manager Dave Trembley said. “If we’re thinking that this guy’s going to go up there and hit .500 and hit 35 home runs the rest of the year, we need to lay on somebody’s couch and let the guys with the white jackets come get us. That’s just totally unrealistic.”

Wieters, Baseball America’s 2008 minor league player of the year, hits for average and for power from both sides of the plate. He hit .343 and slugged .576 with a .438 on-base percentage in 169 minor league games. Wieters is also 6-foot-5 and has a good arm - so good that he pitched out of the bullpen for Georgia Tech during his three years there.

Scouting reports compare him to Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, but with more power. A teammate anonymously referred to him as “the switch-hitting Jesus,” and ESPN analyst Keith Law said “sliced bread is actually the best thing since Matt Wieters.”

His fans have created a Web site, mattwietersfacts.com, devoted to generating excitement about him by posting humorous, hyperbolic statements. Among them: “Matt Wieters isn’t perfect… that would grossly underestimate his abilities.” “Matt Wieters is such a dangerous hitter, he even gets intentional walks in batting practice.” “Matt Wieters beat cancer. Literally. With his bat. There is no more cancer.”

“Everyone came in here expecting so much out of the poor kid,” designated hitter Aubrey Huff said. “I’m sure it’s been a grind for him.”

His statistics are pedestrian so far - entering Thursday night, a .261 batting average with two home runs and six RBI in 19 games - but he has shown flashes of potential. Wieters had reached base safely in 10 of his past 11 games, picking up multiple hits five times. Two of his best games were against Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, among the hardest throwers in the majors.

In the second inning June 17 against the New York Mets’ Tim Redding, Wieters showcased his pop by driving a fastball the other way for his first career home run.

“When he hit it, I thought it was a popup,” Huff said. “It goes to show what kind of power he’s got - it looked like he got beat on a fastball a little bit, and he just carried it out to left-center.”

The next night, Wieters led off the ninth inning against Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez with a line drive to the gap, which he legged out for a double. The Orioles went on to score two runs and win 5-4.

The hit was especially meaningful for Wieters because Rodriguez struck him out with the bases loaded and no outs in the first game of the series. It was a promising sign that Wieters got the better of the second encounter - one of the biggest challenges has been getting used to facing pitchers who are more talented than those he saw in Class AAA.

“It’s the preparation you got to go into putting in,” Wieters said. “You got to make adjustments quick up here. You got to learn a lot faster.”

That challenge is a major reason why it’s common for young players to struggle at the beginning of their careers. Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, the seventh pick in the 2003 draft, was hitting .221 with a .302 slugging percentage in mid-June of his rookie season before improving; by July 31, his average was .297. Former top pick Mauer had a .254 average through his first 22 games. And after his promotion in August 1981, Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. batted .128 with no extra-base hits, then started 1982 with a .117 average in April. He rebounded to win AL rookie of the year honors.

As a catcher, Wieters also has a steeper learning curve defensively. He must pick up the tendencies of opposing hitters who are unfamiliar to him and work with many pitchers he has never caught before.

“It’s going to take a little while,” Mets catcher Brian Schneider said. “The biggest thing for him is to learn the hitters and hitters’ weaknesses and to read swings, read their takes and read foul balls.”

Getting the opportunity to play regularly right away has helped speed up Wieters’ development.

“He’s holding his own,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. “He’s gonna be good - he’s gonna be real good. It’s just a matter of getting to play every single day because, if he plays every day, he’s gonna get accustomed to big league pitching, which isn’t easy.”

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