For Milligan, there's plenty of hope left

Ken Rosenthal

April 25, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

CHICAGO -- His critical at-bat came with the Orioles leading 5-0 in the eighth inning. Randy Milligan hit a hard line drive to the opposite field, not a bad way to make an out. "That's when I know my swing is coming," he said. "It won't be long now."

Let us hope. No one bothered probing Milligan's inner psyche last season after he batted .194 in his first 40 games. But now he's playing leftfield -- at least most of the time -- and the temptation is to attribute his slow start to his bruised ego.

Forget it. Manager Frank Robinson concedes the position change has had "some" effect on Milligan's hitting, but the Moose prefers to ignore the question entirely. He's not going to sulk all season. He's not going to sulk at all.

This is very good news, for the Orioles might be in trouble if Milligan does not make a smooth transition from first base. The issue is critical not only for the 1991 season, but beyond. A failure by Milligan to adjust could force the club to trade either him or Glenn Davis.

Milligan recognizes as much, but claims, "I'm going to try not to let outside factors affect me. I could be saying, 'Well, I hate this, I'm never going to learn to play out there.' But if I think about all the negative things, I'll always be making excuses for what's going on."

That is not Milligan's way, and the fact is, things still could change. He returned to first base the last three games while Davis rested his sore left hamstring. And he could wind up with at-bats as a designated hitter if Sam Horn doesn't show improvement soon.

The pieces still don't seem to fit in this new and improved lineup, and perhaps they never will. Still, the Orioles are dangerous enough to win even on nights when a decrepit pitcher like Charlie Hough doesn't provide the rare gift of 12 baserunners in 3 2/3 innings.

Somehow, Milligan has to make this work, and so does Robinson. Two years ago the Orioles contended until the final weekend with an offense that combined savvy with speed. This lineup promotes neither, and also unlike the '89 club, is weighted too heavily to the right side.

The difference in the equation is Davis, and to a lesser extent, Dwight Evans. No one could deny the logic of either addition, but it's not always simple changing the mix. Milligan hit 20 homers and led the club with a .408 on-base average last season. He doesn't deserve this.

His skills in left are what one might expect of a player who made only one previous major-league outfield appearance. He has only one error, a dropped fly ball in Milwaukee, and admits, "That bothered me a while." Imagine his reaction if, say, his weak arm costs the Orioles a game.

"I just told him, 'Don't let it eat at you inside,' " Robinson says. "I think he can do this, I think he can beat it. But I'll be the first one to stop it if I think it's affecting him to the point where he can't hit if he's out there."

For now, Milligan is batting .200, no homers, two RBIs after last night's 1-for-4. A loss would have dropped the Orioles to 4-9 -- Nick Leyva's broken record -- but the 162-game march is just beginning. Injuries and inadequacies keep lineups in a constant state of flux, always changing, always evolving.

In other words, Milligan might get an occasional reprieve like the one Davis' injury afforded him in Chicago. Just when he appears set to return to left, Horn's 19 strikeouts in 33 at-bats might create an opening for him at DH, enabling Joe Orsulak to play against all righthanders.

Horn is second on the club with nine RBIs, but seven of those resulted from his two homers, and Robinson is growing impatient. True, Horn is the club's only power threat from the left side. But his benching could ease the burden on Milligan and even create additional at-bats for Leo Gomez.

It could come to that -- "I don't want to get buried early," Robinson says, overlooking the fact that his team plays in the always-forgiving AL East. Or Milligan might simply get stuck in left, the original makeshift plan.

Otherwise, the club will be left with three first basemen, including Rochester's David Segui. That would force the Orioles BTC to make an early decision on Davis, who is eligible for free agency. The deadline for trading players without waivers is July 31.

It could come to that too, but Milligan is determined to succeed. "Will it work out? I think it will," he says. "The more I go out there, the more balls I catch, the more confident I'll get." Only in baseball could that seem simple, and the addition of a Glenn Davis complicated.

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