Roberts on his long-awaiting return

BALTIMORE– Interim Orioles manager Juan Samuel half-joked on Thursday that he was worried that an eager Brian Roberts — who offered to write the O’s lineup — would pencil his own name in the leadoff spot.

On Friday Samuel didn’t need to worry about any preemptive moves, as Baltimore activated Roberts from the 60-day disabled list prior to the second game of the Orioles-Twins wraparound set. And for the first time since April 9’s homer opener; Roberts’ name was exactly where it should be: batting leadoff and playing second base.

“These guys are probably exhausted and it is like Opening Day for me,” Roberts said with a grin as his teammates prepared for game No. 96, which will only be Roberts’ fifth start.

“I’m looking forward to just getting out there and playing. It has been a long time and I’m just excited to be back on the field.”

There was a time when Roberts wasn’t sure if that would be possible this season.

Officially on the disabled list since April 10, Roberts has dealt with several epidural injections to help quell the inflammation around a herniated disc in his lower back suffered this offseason, a bout of pneumonia that got him hospitalized and “unrelated back pain” that further postponed the prospect of getting in any rehab games at the Orioles’ Spring Training complex in Sarasota, Fla.

“It did get to the point a couple of times, where I didn’t know if it was better off just not even pushing it anymore,” Roberts said on Monday after taking pregame batting practice in preparation for his first Double-A rehab game “But, you know, you just go through the process and you see where it takes you.

“I was going to continue to go through that [process] until it got to the point where there was no hope at the end.”

Fortunately for Roberts and the Orioles, it never got that far. The second baseman started his rehab last week and after going 8-for-15 in three games with the Gulf Coast League O’s, Roberts hit 429 (6-for-14) with two doubles in three games at Bowie, and campaigned heavily for a weekend return.

“We were trying not to have him back, so we wouldn’t take a chance and have him play on the turf [next week] in Toronto,” Samuel said.  “But he stated that he’s ready to go. And we feel like he knows his body better than anybody else.”

Roberts is tentatively scheduled to play back-to-back games, rest on Sunday and take off the middle game (Tuesday) of next week’s Toronto series. While much of his playing time will depend on how he feels, Roberts said he’s not worried or uneasy about pushing to return to the lineup so soon.

“Obviously there are things I still haven’t done, but I am not too worried about going out there in the game and doing the things I normally do,” Roberts said. “I may make some adjustments. We’ll see how it goes.”

Roberts played three consecutive games at Bowie and said on Thursday he accomplished everything he set out to do on the short rehab stint.

“I played two nine-inning games, one at 11 a.m. [ET],” Roberts said. “I figure if I can play at 7 [p.m.] and turn around and play at 11 [the next morning], I am doing all right. Obviously, seeing pitches, getting at-bats, things like that. I felt like I got out most of what I needed to.”

With Roberts’ return, Samuel acknowledged the importance of having a premier leadoff man and how much B-Rob’s presence will benefit middle-of-the-order hitters Tejada and Nick Markakis.

“We’ve been using Corey [Patterson at leadoff], we’ve been using Felix Pie there,” Samuel said. “Felix doesn’t look very comfortable there. He seems more comfortable to be hitting down in the order. It’s a mindset. Brian is a guy that works the count, takes pitches.
 
“We will definitely welcome Brian back. We know how much he means to our club in the leadoff spot.”

A dynamic table-setter, the switch-hitting Roberts hit .283 with a .356 on-base percentage and a .451 slugging percentage in 159 games last season. He hit 16 homers with 79 RBIs and a franchise-record 56 doubles, which also set the all-time single-season mark in a season by a switch-hitter.

While Roberts’ return is expected to bolster a beleaguered Baltimore offense, Samuel said he will use caution in bringing back Roberts given how much time he missed and the nature of his injury.

The 32-year-old Roberts — in the first year of a four-year, $40 million deal — missed most of Spring Training after receiving his first epidural for the injury he originally suffered during offseason workouts in Arizona. He had just 19 spring-at bats, but both Roberts and the team pronounced him to be in playing shape, and Roberts was starting in his fourth consecutive game on April 9 when he reinjured his back on a successful first-inning headfirst slide stealing second.

“We have to be careful, especially in Toronto,” Samuel said. “Let’s see how [Roberts] feels after playing him back-to-back games here [at Camden Yards]. We want to be smart with that.”

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