For Davis, familiarity breeds homers KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

March 13, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Glenn Davis said it was nice to see a familiar face, even if it belonged to Pittsburgh Pirates pitching ace Doug Drabek.

Drabek probably would not agree, not after Davis' all-too-familiar swing sent another baseball into the stratosphere yesterday, but he can take solace in the fact that it hit the scoreboard at McKechnie Field instead of Three Rivers Stadium or the Astrodome.

Davis can take some satisfaction from his second home run in four games. It was further proof that his upper-body strength has returned after a freak neck injury cost him most of last season, but it also illustrated something less encouraging. He still is more familiar with National League pitchers than with the ones he will face when the Orioles open the regular season in 24 days.

It isn't easy being a stranger in a strange league, and Davis will have to go through it again. He played in 49 games last year, hardly enough to get a feel for more than a small percentage of American League pitchers.

"I still have a better idea of the guys in the National League," Davis said. "I'm more prepared when I go to the plate. I played against a few [AL] teams, and I've tried to keep some notes.

There are a lot I don't know, but I think I'm a lot further along this year than last year."

How important is it to know your opponent? Consider this:

The first home run Davis hit this spring came off the Chicago White Sox's Alex Fernandez, a pitcher he faced several times last spring and again in the early weeks of the regular season. He had faced Drabek on many occasions during his six seasons with the Houston Astros. Both balls were crushed. Davis said it isn't a coincidence.

"You have a better feel for what you want to do," Davis said. "It doesn't mean you're going to hit a guy, but you're more in control of the situation. It helps."

It can work both ways, of course. Drabek lost yesterday's battle, but a knowledgeable pitcher is just as likely to adjust to the hitter. Orioles right-hander Rick Sutcliffe dominated Davis when the two played in the National League, but it may have had more to do with the team Davis played for than Davis himself.

"I don't recall ever throwing Glenn a strike," Sutcliffe said. "Why .. would you throw him a strike when he was the only big hitter in that [Houston] lineup?"

That doesn't figure to be a problem in Baltimore. The Orioles are not considered an offensive juggernaut, but they ranked among the top power-hitting teams in the American League last year, even though Davis missed much of the season.

By the time the regular season had begun last year, Davis already was losing strength in his shoulder. That strength appears to be back, if the dent he made in the scoreboard yesterday is any indication.

"He's definitely swinging the bat better now," manager John Oates said. "He doesn't have to start his bat early. Last year, after he came back, he was way out in front of the slow curve.

"He can wait now. He doesn't feel hindered by the weak shoulder. He knows he can wait, because he has the strength in his shoulder and his forearm to get around on the ball."

The neck injury is a painful memory; his right shoulder droops just enough to be noticeable. He says there is no pain. He has proved twice that there is no weakness. The Orioles can only hope he keeps proving that all season.

His misfortune has tempered the expectations that followed him from Houston to Baltimore. There is room to wonder if he can come back to be one of the most dangerous hitters in the game after back-to-back seasons in which he missed significant time because of injury.

Two home runs are not enough to remove all doubt. Davis, after all, did hit four home runs in 41 at-bats when the muscle in his right shoulder was withering. He came back to hit six more while he still was rebuilding it. The man has proved he can hit the ball a long way, but can he do it over the long haul?

The Orioles apparently think so. They have been trying to trade first baseman Randy Milligan since the end of the 1991 season. It still seems likely that they will move Milligan, even though he could provide valuable insurance at first base.

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