Hoiles under gun, as Brewers race on

September 11, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

His locker is tucked in a back corner of the Orioles' clubhouse at Camden Yards, so it is easy not to notice Chris Hoiles. His season was disrupted for two months by a broken wrist, so it is understandable to forget how valuable Hoiles had become.

But the focus is finding its way back to the 27-year-old catcher. Since returning from the disabled list more than three weeks ago, Hoiles has picked up where he left off before getting hit by what the Orioles contend was a suspicious-looking Tim Leary fastball back in June.

"I was hitting the ball well when I got hurt, so it's frustrating to think about what kind of year I might have had," Hoiles said earlier this week. "I do think about it sometimes, but most of that will come during the winter. I still have a job to do, and that's to help this team win games."

Hoiles' job will get decidedly more difficult this weekend. He will try to help the slumping, second-place Orioles break their four-game losing streak tonight when the third-place Milwaukee Brewers begin a crucial three-game series at Camden Yards.

The tough part won't be when Hoiles comes to bat, considering his recent stretch of 10-for-21 in the team's past six games that raised his season's totals to a .286 batting average, with 19 home runs. It will be trying to prevent baseball's runningest team from running the Orioles right out of the pennant race.

"I think their attitude isn't 'Try and throw us out,' it's 'We don't care if you throw us out, we're going to run anyway,' " Orioles manager Johnny Oates said of the Brewers, whose 210 stolen bases are 71 more than any other American League team and 35 more than any team in the majors.

Said pitcher Ben McDonald: "The Brewers are in my opinion the toughest series we've had all year. They can hit, they can pitch and they can run. And run. And run. And run. And run."

It presents an interesting dilemma for Oates. Does he stick with Hoiles, whose percentage of throwing out runners (9 of 64, .141) is among the worst of any regular catcher in either league? Or does he keep Hoiles' hot bat in the lineup as the team's designated hitter, and put stronger-armed Jeff Tackett, who is a respectable 13 of 41, behind the plate?

Earlier in the week, Oates said: "If Hoiles is in the lineup, it's not going to be as the DH, but check with me in a couple of days." After Wednesday night's 5-2 loss to the New York Yankees, Oates said he "would sleep on it for a day, I'll probably not make my mind up until I get to the park on Friday."

Hoiles always has been considered a very good defensive catcher whose throwing arm was never a problem.

As a part-time starter last year, Hoiles led American League catchers in fielding, with only one error in 477 chances, and threw out 25 of 74 runners. This, after tearing a muscle in his right shoulder late in the 1990 season trying to throw out Milwaukee's Paul Molitor.

While others have pointed to the broken wrist and subsequent inactivity for his throwing troubles, Hoiles won't use the injury as an excuse.

In fact, statistics bear him out: He was 5 of 39 before he got hurt, 4 of 25 after.

"The bottom line is that I'm not getting the job done," Hoiles said.

Asked about this weekend's series against the Brewers, Hoiles said: "It puts a lot of pressure on me, and a lot of pressure on the pitchers. They've got speed up and down their lineup. It opens a lot more holes."

It is just another obstacle Hoiles is looking to overcome.

Hoiles had to clear his way through a logjam behind home plate after making the Orioles out of spring training last year. With three catchers starting the 1991 season, and three finishing it, the only time Hoiles felt comfortable was when he was sharing the job with Bob Melvin.

When Melvin was traded before the season, it left Hoiles as the No. 1 catcher with Tackett as the backup. It helped Hoiles get off to a terrific start. He was sixth in the league in home runs with 14 and fifth in both slugging percentage and on-base percentage when he got hurt.

"I think it helped me," Hoiles said of the Melvin trade.

"I didn't feel that much pressure. When you've got another guy and you're splitting time pretty equally, you want to open some eyes when you get your chance. When they got rid of Bob, it relaxed me. I knew I was going to be in there every day.

"I thought with more playing time I was going to reach some higher goals. My projection was to hit 20 home runs. I'll do that even with missing two months. If I didn't miss that time, I'd be way over it by now. But you can't look back. If you do that, you're not concentrating on what you're supposed to be doing."

What Hoiles has done this season, before June 21 and after Aug. 18, isn't surprising to the Orioles. "I said in spring training that he'd hit 20-plus home runs, and that was before he got hurt," Oates said. "He might do it anyway. Since he's been here, he's been a good receiver. We all know that his arm strength is the worst part of his game. But if a pitcher gives him a chance to throw someone out, he can do it."

Hoiles will have his chances this weekend. Will he ever.

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