'Screech' Gets the Ball Rolling for The Orioles

Javy Lopez
Orioles catcher Javy Lopez does a great job of blocking the plate and tags out Phillies runner Pat Burrell at the plate to preserve the Orioles' 7-0 shutout win. (Nick Wass - AP)
By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

BALTIMORE, May 21 -- There is not much of Jeff Fiorentino that appears to belong in the major leagues, not the bushy, curly hair, nor the slight frame, nor the young face that appears more suited for a high school yearbook. Only when he approaches the plate and takes a swing, his body never flinching in fear, is his talent tangible. In his first few games in the majors he has appeared raw but talented, his emotions touchingly genuine.

In the Orioles' 7-0 victory over Philadelphia on Saturday, they loaded the bases in the third inning against starter Vicente Padilla, bringing Brian Roberts to the plate with none out. The Orioles second baseman popped out to shortstop, bringing up the man called "Screech" by his teammates because of his likeness to a character from the television show "Saved by the Bell."

Fiorentino slapped a single to left field, scoring the first two runs of the game, and the only two Orioles starter Erik Bedard needed. The Orioles now lead the Boston Red Sox by three games.

In this young season, Bedard, who won his fifth game by pitching seven scoreless innings, has emerged as Baltimore's best pitcher. He was the most sought-after in trade talks this offseason, and Baltimore held onto him instead of acquiring Tim Hudson.

In the seventh inning Saturday, Bedard might have transformed himself from a prospect to an ace. With men on second and third and no outs, his shutout in danger of being wrecked, Bedard struck out Jason Michaels and Todd Pratt and forced a lineout from Tomas Perez to end the inning.

"He had a four-run lead," Baltimore Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "The easiest thing to do is to go get him. But you show a little confidence and let him work out of it."

As is his nature, Bedard was stoic, not one bit of emotion evident on his way to the dugout. Fiorentino may be the complete opposite. After his single in the third, he cackled. After his double in the fifth, he beamed at second base. Mazzilli already has so much confidence in Fiorentino, he put him in the second spot in the lineup for the first time Saturday.

"That's what I like about him, that he doesn't seem intimidated by any situation at the plate," Mazzilli said.

Fiorentino is hitting .310 in eight games even though he was supposed to be barely finishing his second month in Class A ball.

"I can't explain it," Fiorentino said. "I've been playing baseball for 18 years. These guys are great out here, but it's still the same thing, same bases, same mound."

On the day he arrived from Class A Frederick, Fiorentino sat in his locker near the entryway of the clubhouse and was not approached by one teammate. Right fielder Jay Gibbons took one look at the name tag from across the clubhouse and could not pronounce the rookie's last name. "Who's Floretinole?" he asked.

Nobody knew him. Fiorentino's new teammates were quickly skeptical. Quietly, they asked how a 22-year-old kid from Class A was going help the team stay in first place? Who was Jeff Fiorentino anyway?

He hadn't spent one minute of spring training in the major league camp. Instead, he was in Sarasota, on the other side of Florida from Baltimore's camp in Fort Lauderdale, which might as well have been the other side of the world.

Yet from the moment he arrived -- looks notwithstanding -- Fiorentino appeared to belong. He was flawless in his first interviews, offering genuine answers that were not cliches. He had no fear then, either.

He just appeared to know how to hit, slapping balls across the field.

"I'm not a bigger guy; I can't go out there and swing for the fences," Fiorentino said. "My objective is get the bat on the ball. If they're going to go outside, then that's where I'm going to go. If they're going to come inside, then that's where I'm going to go."

In his final at-bat, Fiorentino struck out on Geoff Geary's fastball in the eighth. He walked away slowly and laid his bat on the ground. He had finally appeared overmatched.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company