Batting order is all right, but production isn't

Ken Rosenthal

April 11, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Already Orioles fans are complaining of early symptoms. Dryness in the mouth. Twitching of the limbs. Ringing in the ears. It's post-traumatic Streak syndrome, and after 1988 it will haunt this team's followers every year until the first victory is secure.

All right, 0-2 isn't 0-21, but this is the season the Orioles are supposed to pound lefthanders like Greg Hibbard. It didn't happen last night in a game played in football weather. Maybe the revamped lineup will prefer the warm Texas air. Oops, almost forgot -- it was 89 degrees Opening Day.

Whatever, Hibbard shut out the Orioles for eight innings in Chicago's 2-0 victory at Memorial Stadium. Yes, he won 14 games last year and was eighth in the league with a 3.16 ERA. But last night he faced a Baltimore lineup packed with nine righthanded hitters for the first time since 1989. Good ones too.

The club didn't necessarily plan it this way, but the additions of Dwight Evans and Glenn Davis helped create a batting order with a decidedly righthanded look. No longer should crafty lefthanders baffle the Orioles; indeed, these are the pitchers the club should now dominate.

Even if you accept last night's plunging temperatures as an excuse -- the White Sox did manage to score two runs -- it's clear the Orioles must improve on last season's 24-32 record against lefthanded starters. Opening Day showed they won't have it easy against nasty righthanders like Jack McDowell.

"We've got to beat lefthanded pitchers, period," manager Frank Robinson said. "The tough righthanders are going to give us trouble on a given day -- I know that. But we've got to hold our own against lefthanded pitching. We've got to put some hurt on them. We can't let them get away."

As it stands, Joe Orsulak is the most dangerous hitter from the left side, Sam Horn the only power threat. It's funny, because the Orioles' offseason search for run production initially focused on two lefthanded hitters -- Mike Greenwell and Franklin Stubbs. Only later did they pursue Evans and Davis.

Frankly, they couldn't afford to be picky, not after finishing 11th in the league in runs. More balance is preferable, but if the lineup must be weighted toward one side, it's better this way. Righthanded hitters are accustomed to facing righthanded pitching. The same is not true in reverse.

In recent years, the Orioles were just the opposite -- too lefthanded. Remember their 12-0 loss to Milwaukee in the '88 opener? Five lefthanded hitters (Orsulak, Stone, Sheets, Lynn and Kennedy) started against lefthander Teddy Higuera that day. It was a mismatch for the ages.

For all its wonders, '89 wasn't much better. The Orioles were 35-25 against lefthanded starters, but that record was misleading. In September, they were shut out in games started by Hibbard, Bud Black and Chuck Cary -- and scored only one run in a loss to Jamie Moyer, another lefthander.

Now everything is reversed. Yet, it's hardly a crime that Robinson started eight righthanders against McDowell on Opening Day. For one thing, his only possible change was Orsulak for Evans -- a platoon player for a potential Hall of Famer. And again, right-right matchups aren't exactly uncommon.

As Robinson said, "They've seen them all their lives." Randy Milligan, in fact, hits righties better than lefties. He's an exception, but teams generally face two righthanders to every lefthander. The ratio is even higher against the Orioles, whose only lefthanded starter is Jeff Ballard.

What all this means for the present is that the Orioles can't afford to lose to lefthanders like Hibbard. "It's guys like that we need to jump on," Milligan said. "We can't let any lefties get away like that. No doubt about it, when a lefty comes up, our chances are going to be pretty good."

What it means for the future is a more interesting question. The foul-pole distances and prevailing winds at the new downtown ballpark are expected to favor lefthanded hitters (it will be 319 down the rightfield line, 335 down the left). Eli Jacobs probably thinks that's a reason not to sign Davis.

Seriously, the club already is preparing for the change. The day he acquired minor-league outfielder Paul Carey, general manager Roland Hemond joked of his "warehouse power" from the left side. Robinson, however, claims the team should not be designed for the ballpark, not when half its games will still be on the road.

But that's a concern for 1992 -- and beyond. Right now the right-minded Orioles can't even beat Greg Hibbard. Any self-respecting fan knows the first win is coming. But to those still recovering from post-traumatic Streak syndrome, the frightening question is when.

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