While counting down the hours until the first pitch...

It’s been 2 ½ weeks since I flew into Sarasota, and we’re only two exhibition games deep into the Grapefruit League schedule.

What have I learned so far?

Brian Matusz has nasty stuff. Four pitches he can throw for strikes or use to make hitters look foolish. And he has a keen understanding of how to work them for someone so young.


Are 15 wins too much to expect in his first full season in the majors? Am I coming in too low?

Nick Markakis looks stronger this spring. You can tell he worked out over the winter. And he’s been a monster in the cage and at the plate. We’ll see how that translates to the regular season.

Kevin Millwood may have a low-key personality, but he’s got a good sense of humor and deserves extra credit for not snapping after the 15th interview request about his leadership role on a young staff. He couldn’t have been more helpful. And his work ethic has been even more impressive.

Felix Pie’s attitude is fantastic, and he’s also been very impressive in batting practice and his two plate appearances. But each time he runs the bases, you wait for a blowout. It’s like he’s driving on bald tires. What gives?

Mike Hinckley will have to step it up if he wants to win the job of lefty specialist. He allowed two runs on two hits and a walk in his only inning in the intrasquad game, and took the loss yesterday after surrendering a leadoff triple, walking two (one intentionally) and giving up the decisive hit - Matt Joyce’s long single to the fence in right.

Whether Mark Hendrickson is going good or bad - and he’ll have an important role in the bullpen - he stomps on a game’s pace like it’s a cockroach scurrying under the sink. You just learn to accept it and hope he gets outs.

Rhyne Hughes will tease us with his power and remind us that he strikes out too much. He knows what he needs to work on if he’s going to be more than a Triple-A player (and I don’t mean 4-A).

Wilfrido Perez will be beating down the door this summer if he stays healthy.

There’s no reason to panic over Nolan Reimold’s sore Achilles, but it was foolish to expect him to be full-go from Day One here. The Orioles are smart to take it a little slow with him. And it would be wise to find at-bats for him in the DH role, at least early in the season.

Miguel Tejada won’t look completely lost at third base, but he’s not winning a Gold Glove this year. His cannon arm will save him some errors, and he’ll make plays that impress, but he’ll also get tied up on some balls - as we saw with the chopper in the first exhibition game. But it won’t be for a lack of effort. He’s showing up early and working hard.

Matt Wieters is much more comfortable in the clubhouse this spring, like he knows that he belongs. He’s not cocky, just more confident in the way he carries himself. Many of us have noticed.

Chris Tillman couldn’t look you in the eye while giving extremely short answers to reporters’ questions last spring. We joked that he was a nice kid, but unquotable. Now he’s quite the opposite. It’s fun to watch players like Tillman mature in this environment. And it’s worth noting that he doesn’t turn 22 until next month.

The Japanese media isn’t bored with Koji Uehara, but its obsession over him has softened like the rain-soaked fields here. It knows when he’s scheduled to pitch, even in his new relief role, but that didn’t bring the masses to Port Charlotte yesterday. And his bullpen and live BP sessions no longer draw a crowd.

Will Ohman is the new Steve Kline. He’ll be a media favorite if he sticks around. He’ll be a fan favorite if he pitches better than Kline.

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