When John Oates became the manager of the Baltimore Orioles in late May, one of his first pronouncements was that Joe Orsulak would play every day, period.
Oates has had to back off from that promise slightly, but his faith in Orsulak's ability still has paid dividends.
Orsulak entered last night with a 21-game hitting streak, one short of the club record, and as a semi-regular caught in the middle of a late-season experiment with youth.
By mid-game, Orsulak's quest was the focal point of the crowd, with Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Juan Guzman rolling comfortably behind a 6-1 lead.
But Orsulak and the Orioles were denied by Guzman, the outfielder going 0-for-4 to fall one short of the record shared by Eddie Murray and Doug DeCinces.
"I kind of wished the record had been 30," said Orsulak. "I hit in 21 straight and feel like I choked. I'm very disappointed. I tried as hard as I could."
Orsulak flied to left on the first pitch in his first at-bat, popped out after failing to bunt for a hit, grounded to second and then struck out swinging.
In the second turn, he hit a chopper that almost hit runner Bill Ripken. According to the rules, if it had struck Ripken unintentionally, it would have been scored a hit.
"I didn't deserve one on that ball," said Orsulak. "I just haven't had a lot of success against this guy. But after I bunted once, I was going to try to get a hit swinging the bat. I wish it would have happened, but it didn't. Nobody was getting much, not just me."
Only two players in the majors have had longer batting streaks this season, Brett Butler of the Los Angeles Dodgers (23) and Brian McRae of the Kansas City Royals (22).
Orsulak, a left-handed hitter, has sat out against left-handed pitchers while Oates plays David Segui in left field and tries to squeeze in sufficient at-bats for Randy Milligan, Dwight Evans and others.
During the streak, which began Aug. 2 in Chicago, Orsulak missed four games -- started by left-handers Brian Bohanon of the Texas Rangers, Wilson Alvarez of the Chicago White Sox (a no-hitter), Allan Anderson of the Minnesota Twins and Jimmy Key of Toronto. All season, Orsulak has batted only 52 times officially against lefties -- to a .231 batting average.
Which begs the question: Is the occasional rest helpful or harmful to the health of a batting streak? And brings the answer: It all depends on whom you ask.
Batting coach Tom McCraw is convinced that missing any game in the middle of a hot streak is harmful.
"It's tougher when you sit out for psychological reasons," said McCraw. "You get into a routine, eat the same thing, wear the same stuff and it's disrupted by not playing. It fouls up the mental approach."
Oates said it is a tough thing any time, but "it has to be to Joe's
advantage not to face those left-handers. I think if he's in there every day, he plays better, but he's not going to sit long."
Another hitter on a streak, Cal Ripken, said he believes that "missing a day here or there isn't a problem. It's more difficult if you sit a longer period.
"But, basically it depends on the individual. Joe is the kind of person who wants to play every day, but maybe, this has been good for him in a way.
"The fact of the matter is you still have to go out and get hits every game no matter when they are." Ripken had a 12-game streak that was ended by Guzman.
Orsulak dismissed the idea. "I came back with two days off before and got hits," he said. "The guy was just tough.
"If he'd thrown one down the middle, I'd have gotten a hit. I felt pressure, but it wasn't to the point where I got caught up in it. He just pitched well."
Among players with streaks of 34 games or longer in major-league history, all 16 played in at least 118 games, a figure Orsulak (with 111) certainly will exceed unless he is injured.
They were regulars who rested occasionally. The low mark of 118 belongs to the Milwaukee Brewers' Paul Molitor, who twice was on the disabled list with hamstring injuries in 1987 when he hit in 39 straight.
The Orioles brass simply believes Orsulak is finding his familiar niche after floundering in the .230s and .240s most of the season.
Last year, Orsulak was at .305 July 23 after a fast start, but slowed by an ailing shoulder, finished at .269. This year, the reverse has happened.
"He's a .275-.280 type hitter," said Oates. "That's where he lands."
"Water seeks its proper level," said McCraw. "Joe's not a .230 hitter. Either way, drought or flood, it's going to even out if he gets enough at-bats. That's what is happening."
Site:.. .. .. .. .. .. Memorial Stadium
Time:.. .. .. .. .. .. 7:35
Blue Jays starter:.. ..Tom Candiotti (10-11, 2.49)
Orioles starter:.. .. .Ben McDonald (5-7, 5.21)
Radio:.. .. .. .. .. . WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
TV:.. .. .. .. .. ... HTS
Joe Orsulak's streak
Date.. .. Opp... .. AB.. .. H.. .. 2B.. .. 3B.. .. .. RBI
Aug. 2.. Chi... .. . 3.. .. 1.. .. 0.. .. 1.. .. .. ..0
Aug. 3.. Chi... .. ..5.. .. 3.. .. 1.. .. 0.. .. .. ..0