Since the retirement of Brooks Robinson in 1977, the Baltimore Orioles have used 19 players at third base.

Fritzie (Fritz) Lee Connally could be the 20th.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder has been so impressive in spring training that the Orioles already have released veteran Todd Cruz, who played 94 games at third in 1984.

Now, the Texas-born and raised Connally has an excellent chance at making the trip north when the Orioles break camp next weekend.

"Neither I nor the coaching staff had seen him before this spring," Manager Joe Altobelli said. "He certainly has power. When you look at the Orioles' 1983 and '84 run totals, you'll see we were down 100 runs each year. It looks like he certainly could help get the total back over 800."

Connally has been starting against left-handed pitchers, and Wayne Gross, whom the Orioles obtained from Oakland a year ago, has started against right-handers. Floyd Rayford, whom the Orioles list as a catcher, also saw some action at third a year ago.

"He's a quiet kid trying to improve," said Gross of his challenger. "He's got good power and works hard and I give him advice when he asks for it."

Connally played in the San Diego Padres' system last year and came to the Orioles in a minor league trade for Victor Rodriguez. He leads Baltimore in hitting this spring. Through Friday's game, he was batting .367, with 13 hits in 36 at bats, two home runs and eight RBI.

He has a .299 minor league career average, with 92 home runs. A year ago, he hit .310 with 16 home runs and 76 RBI for Las Vegas.

"Sometimes a change of scenery will make a difference in the development of a player," Orioles General Manager Hank Peters said. "The Padres were committed to Graig Nettles playing third and, for whatever reason, felt Connally wasn't in their future plans.

"We're still not sure he's going to make it. We have some more decisions to make (the Orioles must cut four players before opening day). I like certain things about his abilities. But he hasn't been tested in the field.

"He hasn't had to make the big play so far. Just the other day, he started his first 5-4-3 double play. He looked all right. But it might take months to really know what kind of defensive player he is."

Connally, a graduate of Baylor who signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1980, says he should have won a job last year with the Padres.

"I had a chance to make it, but I didn't do anything right," he said. "I put so much pressure on myself. I did things wrong and they stopped playing me. This spring, I told myself to relax. An error, a strikeout doesn't make a whole spring training. I've started out good and they've given me a chance to play."

He has impressed the Orioles' players and hitting instructor Terry Crowley.

"Don't try to pull that pitch! Hold it (the bat) up!" Crowley yelled at Connally as he took a cut on a pitch. Crowley continued to watch and offer suggestions, but said he has done little to Connally's batting style.

"You offer suggestions, but he swings pretty good," Crowley said. "His hitting talent has gotten him this far and you want him to believe in himself. I hope to stay one step ahead of any bad habits he develops and make suggestions before any problems develop."

Shortstop Cal Ripken also has been impressed: "He looks like a good hitter. He's got good power, patience and the tools -- he can hit, catch and throw. He's confident.

"I'm trying to help him in the field. All you can do is tell him to play in certain positions, how to play the batter on 3-0, 2-1 counts. He's got to show he can play the defense. Other players certainly take note of a young guy who has a good spring training, especially if you don't know him beforehand. I'd say we've noticed him."

Connally got married a few days before the start of spring training and finally became a resident of the team's regular locker room this week. As a nonroster player, he had dressed in an auxiliary locker room.

His background includes football and basketball. He played quarterback in high school. "But I was a lot skinnier back then and didn't like getting hit all the time, so I chose baseball."

It wasn't until his junior year in college that he thought he could play professionally. "When I noticed the pitchers I had hit had been drafted, I thought I could play. But nothing happened after my junior year. Finally, there was interest after my senior season."

Batting seventh in the Orioles' lineup has also helped, he said. "After getting through batters like Ripken, (Eddie) Murray and (Fred) Lynn, pitchers are glad to see me. They've given me good pitches to hit."

But Ripken warns with a laugh, "Once they know he can hit, he won't see those pitches."

Frank White and Steve Balboni homered to help the Kansas City Royals beat the Orioles, 6-1, yesterday in Miami.

Storm Davis, who is to be the Orioles' opening day pitcher, gave up eight hits and all of the Kansas City runs in his six innings.

The Royals scored in five of the first six innings. The Orioles and Royals are both 11-10 this spring.