KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Chris Hoiles could have downplayed the whole thing. He could have come on with that no-big-deal attitude that plays so well at the major-league level, but he didn't.
It may be early in the season. It might not be a big deal, yet. But when Hoiles woke up yesterday, he was leading the American League with a .390 batting average. That might be no big thing to a Cal Ripken, but it was a nice way to start the day for a young catcher who is just starting his first season as an everyday player.
"I'm not going to wake up every morning and run for the newspaper to see if I'm still there, but it's nice," he said. "There aren't going to be that many times you see your name at the top of that list, especially in your first year playing full time."
Shortstop Cal Ripken led the league for 47 of 48 days between June 4 and July 21 last year, and finished the season sixth in the AL with a .323 average. But Hoiles is the first Orioles player other than Ripken to stand atop the league hitting ranks since April 23, 1987, when third baseman Ray Knight led the league with a .423 average.
Hoiles also started the day leading the league with a .707 slugging percentage and ranked among the leaders in runs scored (11, third), on-base percentage (.435, fourth) and total bases (29, eighth). All of those statistics are tied to the solid contact he has been making at the plate.
"It's a whole lot easier when you're playing every day," manager Johnny Oates said. "I don't know why it's easier, but it is. When you're seeing the ball well, you can do what you want to. He is using the whole field, what Cal Jr. was doing last year."
The Orioles were convinced Hoiles would be a fine offensive player when he was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in the Fred Lynn deal in 1988, and Hoiles did nothing to change that opinion during his first extended stay in the majors last year. He batted a respectable .253 and hit 11 home runs in 341 at-bats, but club officials knew there was more to his offensive ability than was meeting his bat.
Hoiles was platooning with veteran catcher Bob Melvin last year, so it was difficult to get him consistent playing time. The Orioles solved that problem in December, when they sent Melvin to the (( Kansas City Royals for pitcher Storm Davis. Hoiles has played in all 14 games this year and has started 13 of them.
"That makes a big difference," said hitting coach Greg Biagini, who watched Hoiles bat .348 playing full time for the Rochester Red Wings in 1990. "You get more comfortable at the plate, and your confidence builds.
"I think you have a tendency to press a little bit when you aren't playing on a regular basis, trying to impress people. You do things you should not be doing."
Hoiles is doing things he never has done. He was the only Orioles player to reach base by hit or walk in each of the club's first 13 games. He entered last night's game tied for the team lead with three home runs and ranked second on the club with nine RBI.
"When you use the whole field, like he's doing right now, that makes it hard to pitch and defense you," Biagini said. "He has shown that he can drive the ball the other way and he can turn on the inside pitch. When you do that, they have to make a choice of how they want to go after you."
Apparently, opposing pitchers have not made the right choice often during the first couple weeks of the season. Hoiles came into last night's game with a six-game hitting streak. He has hTC been right in the middle of the Orioles' offensive upturn, even though he has been in the eighth spot in the lineup for all but one of his 1992 starts.
Oates said yesterday that he does not intend to move Hoiles up in the batting order, even though he has been more productive than anyone at the heart of the Orioles lineup.
"If there is a need and he's swinging well, I'll make a change," Oates said. "I know a couple of years ago, Ozzie Guillen was hitting .300 in the ninth spot for the White Sox. There was pressure on Jeff Torborg to move him around, but [Guillen] stayed there all year.
"You only change if you need it for the lineup. As long as we're winning and we're scoring runs, I'm not going to change anything."
Hoiles said he likes things just the way they are. He is producing at the plate and -- perhaps more importantly -- his pitching staff is performing impressively on the mound. It was difficult to concentrate on hitting last year when the pitching staff was a year-long course in crisis management.
"When you're the young kid up here and things start going wrong, you have a tendency to second-guess yourself," he said. "You start wondering if that was the wrong pitch to call. Those kind of thoughts go through your mind. But you can't do that.
"This year is different. I don't second-guess myself. We've got a different pitching staff. I feel I can call anything. That pressure has been taken off when it comes to calling the game."
Now, he can concentrate more on the opposing pitchers, who have been feeling a surprising amount of pressure from the bottom of the Orioles batting order.