Velazquez and Valaika in thick of utility competition (3-3 tie)

SARASOTA, Fla. - Andrew Velazquez lined a single into right-center field this afternoon off Rays starter Charlie Morton, who handed the ball to his manager and exited one out short of completing the third inning.

At the plate again in the fifth, Velazquez coaxed a walk out of former Orioles reliever Oliver Drake. He’s 4-for-9 with three stolen bases this spring.

Velazquez-Fields-White-ST-sidebar.jpgVelazquez is the last Orioles player to crack the camp roster after a Feb. 19 waiver claim. He’s also migrating toward the front of the line of utility candidates.

Manager Brandon Hyde has played Velazquez at shortstop, second base and center field. Other positions can open up for him based on his past experience.

Pat Valaika, twice claimed off waivers by the Orioles and later outrighted, is starting at shortstop today and singled and stole a base in the fourth. He’s also presenting a strong case for inclusion on the charter flight heading north, with six hits in 15 at-bats, including a double and two home runs.

Malquin Canelo, a longshot to begin with, is the only utility candidate to drop out of the running. The Orioles reassigned him to minor league camp following Sunday’s game in Clearwater.

Dilson Herrera, José Rondón, Richard Ureña, Ramón Urías and Stevie Wilkerson are here. Velazquez and Urías are the only players in the cluster who remain on the 40-man.

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has been rearranging the utility pieces for months and is pleased with the setup.

“Yeah, very,” he said. “Almost everyone in the utility competition other than Richie Martin was brought in over the winter. New to the organization, either minor league signing or a bunch of waiver claims. And I think it’s a real interesting group.

“I think the neat thing about it is I could very easily see the opening day utility player being somebody who isn’t on the 40-man right now. The group of guys that either cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A or are on minor league contracts have been looking good.”

Elias classified Martin, the Rule 5 shortstop last season, as being “in that mix.” But is he more likely to be in Norfolk?

“I do think for his own personal development, it might be beneficial for him to have some Triple-A experience,” Elias said. “This is somebody that if we hadn’t Rule 5’d him last year from Oakland, he would have likely played in Triple-A for a good bit of time for the Oakland A’s last year, and we skipped him up to the big leagues in order to take him in the draft. He struggled, but he held his head above water and did better offensively than people were expecting. And now he’s here in camp and he looks good.

“He’s made some more simplifications and improvements to his swing and he’s right in the mix, but I don’t think that it would hurt him to go to Triple-A and spend some time there, even if it’s just intermittently this season.”

The Orioles could carry two utility players on their 26-man roster. The possibilities aren’t endless, but they’re numerous.

Elias shed some light on the club’s thinking earlier today.

“We’re definitely going to have one, like, true infielder utility guy that can play some shortstop and play some third and play some second,” he said. “And then it looks like we’ll also have another bench spot that could either be a third catcher or more of a utility that can play center field. We’ll just have to see how that shakes out. But I can definitely foresee us having two utility guys or one utility guy and more of a true fourth outfielder.”

A third catcher would be unusual prior to roster expansion in September. There are seven in camp.

“We’ll remain open to it,” Elias said. “Obviously, we’re going to need utility ability on our bench, and just depending on who that is and what all they can do, if it liberates us to have a third catcher, I think it’s something that we’ll look at. But I just don’t know yet.”

Renato Núñez hit his first spring homer this afternoon, a two-run shot in the fourth inning after Chris Davis walked to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead. Michael Perez hit an opposite-field shot off a 95 mph fastball from left-hander Bruce Zimmermann in the top half of the inning.

Zimmermann struck out three batters in the inning and walked one. He notched another strikeout in the fifth after Joey Wendle’s leadoff double, and two more in the sixth, but Hunter Renfroe looped a single into right field and Ji-Man Choi homered to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead.

Asher Wojciechowski turned in an impressive start with three scoreless innings. He walked one batter, who was erased on a 4-6-3 double play, and threw 27 of 41 pitches for strikes.

Leadoff hitter Austin Meadows’ free pass came after a disputed check swing. Only one ball left the infield.

Davis flied to the fence in left-center field in his first plate appearance.

Update: Yusniel Diaz led off the sixth with a triple, his first spring hit, and scored on Davis’ sacrifice fly for a 3-3 tie.

Hunter Harvey tossed a scoreless seventh inning with one hit and one strikeout. His fastball topped out at 97 mph on the stadium gun.

Austin Wynns stayed in the game after taking a foul ball off a sensitive area, and he threw out Brian O’Grady attempting to steal.

Update II: The Orioles and Rays played to a 3-3 tie.

Tommy Milone no longer is starting Tuesday against the Nationals in West Palm. Ty Blach gets the assignment while Milone throws in Sarasota.

Trey Mancini was removed after two at-bats because he’s “not feeling great,” said manager Brandon Hyde.

Hyde on Wojciechowski: :”I thought Asher threw the ball great. Had some nice curveballs. I thought the fastball had some life, and more of it than it did last time. And worked ahead and threw strikes.”

Hyde on Núñez: “Nunie’s had a nice spring, done some good things. He’s improving defensively and good to see him pop one there.”

Hyde on Harvey: “Hunter threw the ball good. I thought he was right where he needs to be. The velo was there. Secondary stuff was pretty good. I think it’s going to get a little sharper as we go along. I thought it was a good first outing.”

Hyde on Zimmermann: “I thought the line doesn’t really tell how he pitched. The slider was really good at times. Just a bad pitch selection there to Perez on the opposite-field homer. He got two strikes on two elevated fastballs and tried to sneak a third one by him and he caught up to it. And kind of a wind-aided one that second home run. I thought the slider was good and he showed really good stuff. It looked like he belonged. It looked like he was comfortable, and I was impressed.”

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