March 06, 2017

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph was gushing over a spring training RBI.

Yes, it's only spring training, but Joseph's reaction was understandable. It had been nearly a year since he had an RBI - anywhere.

Joseph's 2016 season was interrupted for more than a month when a scary testicular injury on May 30 from a foul ball led to surgery.

He didn't have a single RBI in what was a frustrating and painful 2016. Joseph had 66 at-bats before the injury and 66 after it.

On Thursday night in Tampa, Joseph broke the RBI-less streak, sort of. He hit a home run against the New York Yankees' Adam Warren - his first RBI since a run-scoring single in an exhibition against Tampa Bay last March 20.

''It counted to me. It's in the box score, right?'' Joseph said. ''I felt really good about my preparation. Nice to see the fruits of the labor come out.''

The 30-year-old Joseph hit .174 last year with three doubles in 132 at-bats and 141 plate appearances - major league records for most at-bats and plate appearances in a season with no RBIs. The previous highs for a player with no RBIs were set in 1971 by Chicago White Sox All-Star pitcher Wilbur Wood with 96 at-bats and 124 plate appearances, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Baltimore sent Joseph to Triple-A Norfolk in late August to try and ignite his offense.

''A lot of stuff that I was really working on last year is just kind of falling into place,'' Joseph said. ''I had the pieces of the puzzle and that by no means is to say you're going to hit a home run every game, but confidence is really high right now because those pieces are starting to fit together.

''They may not fit every time, but I've got 80 percent of the puzzle now and feeling really good about it.''

With Baltimore's starting catcher, Welington Castillo off to the World Baseball Classic, the 30-year-old Joseph is the most experienced catcher in camp.

Manager Buck Showalter said that last year despite his woeful offense last season, Joseph's defense wasn't affected.

''It didn't suffer. If anything, it allowed him to keep playing,'' Showalter said.

''That's one of the things that people liked about him. He's never carried anything behind the plate. He's really good at it. A really good defensive catcher. He calls a good game.''

Joseph had 49 RBIs in 2015, the last when he hit a pair of run-scoring grounders against Kansas City on Sept. 11. His last run-scoring hit was an RBI single off Toronto's David Price that Sept. 5.

Joseph wound up in arbitration after his difficult 2016 season and lost to the Orioles, getting a $700,000 salary instead of his $1 million request. Despite his struggles last year, his outgoing personality had made him a fan favorite.

''He's obviously an engaging guy, sharp and everything, but believe me, there's a grind down there about it. He handles it well on the surface, but there's a lot of grind underneath,'' Showalter said.

Joseph, who was handled the still-intact regular season RBI-less streak with humor, had his laugh lines ready when he the homer last week.

''Honestly, when I hit them like that, I literally don't even feel the ball on the bat, but I knew right away,'' Joseph said with a smile. ''My first thought was, `OK, what's the proper jogging speed because it's been so long?' You don't want to go too fast, but you also don't want to go too slow.'''

NOTES: SS J.J. Hardy (back), who has yet to play this spring training, is nearing a return. ''My back feels fine. It's basically I haven't done anything for five weeks, so everything I did this offseason has been kind of washed out, so I'm just getting back into shape,'' Hardy said. ... LHP Zach Britton (oblique) is set to throw off a mound on Wednesday, and his first exhibition could come this week. ... RHP Chris Tillman (shoulder) has been progressing, and the Orioles hope he makes his spring training debut on March 17.

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