Orioles' Patterson Looks to Set a Speed Trap

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

VERO BEACH, Fla., March 22 -- When Corey Patterson stepped to the plate in the top of the first inning on Thursday, Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Wilson Betemit crept toward home plate, finally stopping on the lip of the infield grass.

In the past, an opposing fielder would not have moved in so close. Though Patterson has always been fast, he did not always have the skills to use his speed, often preferring to take long, sweeping hacks that resulted in either a home run or a strikeout. The scouting report on Patterson, who led the American League with 17 bunt base hits last season, has changed.

"I've done it before, but [last year] I did it on a more consistent basis," Patterson said. "It helped me out. It's all about knowing yourself. Speed is my biggest asset. So I said, 'Okay, why not bunt a little here or there more often than last year?'

"This year, teams are going to pay closer attention. Even in spring training, I can notice they are playing me closer in, which is better for me, because that opens up room for some base hits. I have to use all those elements of bunting and base stealing. It's something I'll continue to do, but I'll have to concentrate on it a little harder since I know teams are going to bear down on it as well."

In one season with the Baltimore Orioles, Patterson, a center fielder, remade his approach and revived his career, setting a career high with 45 steals and playing stellar defense. The Orioles think Patterson -- a free agent after this season -- can improve on those numbers, and he might have to if he wants a lucrative, multiyear contract. The market will be flooded with talented center fielders during the next offseason, including Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter and Ichiro Suzuki.

"I guess this is going into my sixth year and honestly, I thought last year was the most important year for me, especially coming off the year I had in '05," Patterson said.

"Coming over to Baltimore, a new team, and not really playing early on, I didn't complain or anything, I just continued to work hard. Things turned out okay personally for me. I want to still improve and get better.

"Now for me really is about coming to the park every day and having fun. All this talk about free agency and whatever happens that will all take care of itself. I treat it as I'm a kid, just go out there and have fun. That's what you have to do. That's what I'm focused on. All the free agency stuff, that will come up at the right time. My agent will deal with that."

Orioles Vice President Jim Duquette said the team is certainly interested in bringing back Patterson, but won't visit that issue until the end of the season. The club would like to see another season of improvement before making a long-term commitment.

"If he continues to play like he did last year and maybe a little bit better, he's a pretty good player," Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo said. "I'd like to have him."

Patterson still seems dumbfounded when asked why the 2005 season (.215, 118 strikeouts) with the Chicago Cubs went so badly that the Orioles acquired him for a couple of non-prospect minor leaguers.

"Sometimes in life, whether we're playing baseball, no matter what you do in life you're going to have struggles and obstacles you have to overcome as individuals," Patterson said.

"I just think it was a hard point for me in my life. But we all go through it. I just got in a little rut and I couldn't get out of it. One day back then, I was working on one thing, the next day it was something else. Mentally, it wasn't good for me. That was the main thing. We all go through it and I learned from that."

Patterson slumped through spring training in 2006 and began the season on the bench as Luis Matos's backup in center field. Perlozzo remembers meeting with Patterson and telling him: "You really have the talent to be the center fielder, so go take it. Don't sit around here. You have it. Don't wait around until someone fails. Take the thing."

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