With .349 average, Hoiles springs back from '92 wrist injury BASEBALL

April 03, 1993|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Staff Writer

The Orioles' catching focus all spring has been on the backup slot: Will it be Jeff Tackett or Mark Parent? Stay tuned. D (ecision) Day arrives tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the No. 1 man is rolling into the regular season on an offensive tear, content with his status and almost certain to retain it -- barring another major injury.

Chris Hoiles is comfortable now with his recovery from the fractured right wrist that forced him to miss 51 games last season and possibly kept him out of his first All-Star Game.

"Going into the spring I had some doubts," said Hoiles. "Not only with the wrist, but the arm and everything. I wasn't able to do a whole lot last winter.

"My arm strength was down, and my work was backed up. I had about 1 1/2 months of work instead of 3 1/2 before spring training. I was personally out to prove to myself that it was healthy. So far, the wrist has felt great."

Hoiles delivered a two-run double in the first inning of yesterday's 6-4 exhibition victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Oriole Park. The 1-for-2 day raised his batting average to .349.

Moreover, he threw out would-be base-stealer Orlando Merced an inning later, an even more encouraging sign than the hits, considering that his percentage of 15.5 (16 of 103) on throwing out runners was the lowest in the American League last summer.

Manager Johnny Oates said he "doesn't have any problem" with the way Hoiles has been throwing. "And we're going to give him some help. A number of our pitchers [Alan Mills, Jim Poole and Todd Frohwirth in particular] have improved their quickness to the plate. Chris is fine."

At age 28, Hoiles is still learning the finer points of catching after spending much of his minor-league career as a first baseman-designated hitter.

Coach Elrod Hendricks, a fine receiver during his playing career, said Hoiles can be as good as he wants to be behind the plate.

"Throwing out that runner today was a confidence-builder," said Hendricks. "But he's still got to work hard and regain his rhythm.

"Last year after he came back from the injury, the more he threw, the worse things got. The arm strength wasn't there. And he missed a lot of quality time this winter."

Hendricks said the most improved part of Hoiles' defense is the way he works with the pitching staff and calls a game.

"He has some skills," said the coach. "It's a matter of him applying them."

Hoiles was on fire last summer, averaging a home run every 15.1 times at bat (fourth in the majors) before he went down from a Tim Leary pitch June 21 that TV replays indicated may have been doctored illegally. Early in the season, he was atop the league with a .390 batting average as well, the first Oriole other than Cal Ripken to do that since 1987.

With Hoiles out of the lineup, the Orioles went 26-25 and lost three games in the standings to the front-running Toronto Blue Jays. Tackett did a solid job filling in, but the team missed Hoiles' bat in the bottom third of the lineup.

"People ask me if I'm upset with Leary," said Hoiles. "If I couldn't have come back to play, I would have been a lot more upset. Now, I'm just trying to put that [incident] behind me."

This is an important season for Hoiles, who is eligible for arbitration next winter and "more than that, I want to make a name for myself. I was on my way last year and then it happened. I don't want to stop now and say I had one good season."

Hoiles' desire is to hit 20-plus homers, bat .270 or better and "definitely get more RBI this year. That is one goal I set."

Last season, his 40 RBI were the fewest in major-league history for a player with 20 homers.

"But I want to be the whole package," he said. "My throw-out percentage was terrible and I want to pick up that area. I'm trying to put everything back together defensively."

He hasn't homered in spring training, but isn't "concerned about that. I've hit the ball hard. The home runs will come. When you try for them is when you don't get them."

Hoiles' wrist acts up in cold weather, but he relieves the stiffness by warming the area with bandages and heat. He does not consider the problem anything to worry about.

Oates is comfortable with Hoiles' spring and will bat him primarily sixth in the order to provide more RBI opportunities.

The only question about the catching corps is Hoiles' understudy. The starter is glad of one thing.

"Personally, I'm happy I don't have to make that decision," said Hoiles. "It's awfully tough for the guy who doesn't get it."

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