VERO BEACH, Fla., March 6 -- On the first play of the Baltimore Orioles' 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, center fielder Luis Matos ran swiftly out of the batter's box, dirt flying into the air with each step, after hitting a slow ground ball to second base. Matos did not break his stride for a moment as he raced up the line, but was thrown out by second baseman Jeff Kent. The play itself was irrelevant. It was significant because of what it said about Matos's health.
"I don't see him limping at all around the bases," Baltimore Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "To be honest with you, I'm watching very closely how he runs the bases."
Orioles Outfielder Luis Matos
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Matos lost his standing in the organization last year during a disappointing season after hitting .303 with 13 home runs in 2003. The 26-year-old suffered a stress fracture in his right shin during spring training. He hit .224 with six home runs in 89 games and had surgery in August; a titanium rod was inserted in the shin, which caused him to miss the rest of the regular season.
His shin appears to have healed, but recovering from the damage to his reputation might take time.
"That's why I worked so hard in the offseason to get my leg how it was before it was cracked," Matos said.
Some in the organization aren't convinced Matos can be an everyday player again. His swing, which is not mechanically sound, is often criticized. Though he is fast, Matos's defense isn't considered to be a sure thing.
Mazzilli supports him publicly, but is testing out David Newhan in center field. Larry Bigbie also will play there during the spring.
"I don't see any noticeable difference when he's running," Mazzilli said. "I haven't seen him lose any of that yet. I know he wants to prove to himself [that] last year wasn't the year he would normally have. Obviously, if he gets back to what he was, he'll be a huge plus."
At some point this spring, according to one baseball source, Baltimore likely will inquire about New York Mets outfielder Mike Cameron, who has been displaced in center field by Carlos Beltran. Cameron is recovering from wrist surgery and could miss the first month of the season. Baltimore will monitor his progress during the spring. Cameron, when healthy, is considered among the best defensive center fielders in baseball.
Baltimore is convinced, according to the baseball source, that it won't be able to acquire a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher this spring and has decided its only upgrade may be in center field. Baltimore believes a top defensive center fielder can make up for the lack of range the Orioles may have in right and left field, which should save the young pitching staff a few runs.
If he has a good spring, Matos could force the Orioles to reconsider trading for a center fielder. On Sunday, he batted leadoff and started in center field. Matos's fifth-inning double was his first hit of the spring. He doubled again in the eighth.
"It's good because you know you're going to get a lot of at-bats," Matos said of hitting leadoff. "I need at-bats. I'm trying to get my timing back. I need at-bats so I can get my confidence back. I need to do my job again. That's what I need to prove here in spring training."
Matos's unique surgery may be what lands him back in the starting lineup. The surgery is uncommon for baseball players, though not an uncommon procedure. Doctors believed it would be the quickest way for Matos to return to the field. Matos said he was at first skeptical.
"When you hear about that," Matos said, "you get scared. I asked the doctor if I was going to be able to be the same. They told me it was the best surgery."
To prepare himself for the season, Matos skipped winter league in Puerto Rico and hired a personal trainer for the first time. He also stopped lifting heavy weights and instead worked on his flexibility and endurance. At first glance, he appears to have recovered.
"I know I am the same," Matos said, "running as fast as I was before."