Freel in Friday's lineup for O's
Versatile outfielder looks to shine in season debut
BALTIMORE -- Ryan Freel's versatility does the Orioles no good if he doesn't play. No one understands that maxim better than Orioles manager Dave Trembley, who finally gave Freel his first start of the season Friday night in the opener of a three-game series against the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays.
Maybe now, Freel won't be bouncing off the dugout walls, wondering when -- or if -- he's going to get in a game.
"It's a big difference between the National League and the American League," Freel said. "In the National League, you feel like you're going to go in at some point in the game, whether it be on defense, a double-switch, pinch-hit. Here, when you get on the bench, you're pretty much on the bench."
Acquired along with infield prospects Justin Turner and Brandon Waring from Cincinnati in the Dec. 9 trade that sent catcher Ramon Hernandez to the Reds, Freel immediately became part of a left-field logjam in Baltimore.
The propensity of available outfielders for that spot has forced Trembley to be creative in finding enough playing time to satisfy Freel, incumbent Luke Scott and the promising Felix Pie, who came over from the Chicago Cubs in another trade.
Hitting only .216 (16-for-74) in Spring Training didn't help Freel establish himself as the useful piece the Orioles envisioned him to be.
"I didn't have a good spring, so I know that probably hurt me a lot coming into the season," said Freel. "I probably didn't meet a lot of their expectations as far as where they thought I'd fit in here in this organization. But it's part of the game. Some people start off bad and finish up good; some start off good and finish bad. It's just a different game over here."
So far, Freel's been the odd man out. Scott, who carried the hottest bat from Spring Training into Opening Day, started Monday's opener against the New York Yankees, while Pie got the nod the last two games of Baltimore's initial series.
"It was going to be sooner than later," Trembley said when asked about Freel's inclusion in the starting lineup. "I need to give everybody opportunities to play and get acclimated. It's a team game, so let's use everybody the best we possibly can."
Freel hit seventh on Friday, a spot behind Scott, who served as the designated hitter. Freel's only action this season has been a half-inning as a defensive replacement for second baseman Brian Roberts in Thursday's 11-2 loss to the Yankees. Freel is expected to fill a utility role for the Orioles in 2009, getting starts in left field, as well as spelling Roberts at second and Adam Jones in center.
Freel has used the down time during games to take extra cuts in the indoor batting cage, and run sprints in the tunnel leading to the dugout to keep his legs fresh. His hands are blistered from the extra work and he's worried that not facing live hitting until the season's fourth game will have an adverse effect and land him back on the bench if he doesn't produce.
"These guys, their numbers show what they can do, so when you're winning, [sitting] is a lot more easier to accept," said Freel. "I want to play, but it's going to be a totally different role than I'm used to. ... This is a lineup where I look at it and ask, 'Where the heck do I fit in?' "
Pete Kerzel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.