Until bats awaken, lineup will be a sleeper

June 01, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles stacked up 11 hits and six runs in last night's loss to the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards, but they're still one of the poorest-hitting teams in the major leagues, which is quite a surprise. There are a couple of possible explanations making the rounds.

One is that, while the 27 other teams in the bigs are using "juiced" balls, the Orioles, for some reason, have been issued "moussed" balls. You try hitting one with that glop on it. (If only we could complain to the commissioner.)

Other possible explanations are that a) the players just can't get over the fact that Glenn Davis isn't around anymore; b) they're depressed because they're making so much more money than schoolteachers and they know it isn't right, and c) they already know they're going on a prolonged strike next month, so what's the use of trying hard now?

More than likely, however, the most plausible explanation is that, well, you know, like with all batting slumps, the players aren't hitting because, you know, the players aren't hitting. In other words, there is no explanation. It's just a slump, stupid.

In any case, the numbers are right there in the league statistics, and, be forewarned, they're kind of alarming. The Orioles were last in the league in hits before last night's game. That's dead last, folks. Worse than the Brewers, worse than the A's. They also were last in total bases. Next-to-last in runs and doubles. Ninth in triples. Eighth in homers.

It wouldn't matter so much except that, way back a couple of months ago in spring training, this was a team that was expected to spend all summer clobbering the ball. The Orioles had The Lineup, the best batting order that Peter Angelos' money could buy. They had Rafael Palmeiro and Harold Baines and Cal Ripken. They had Chris Sabo, who wasn't Mike Schmidt, but not bad.

Yet, two months into the season, only the Brew(tal) Crew, fresh off a losing streak longer than "Ina Gadda Da Vida," has scored fewer runs. (At least there was an excuse for the lack of hitting when 'ol Cheapskate from New York was the owner -- remember him? -- and the general manager went around plugging holes with guys like Keith Moreland and Sam Horn. There's no excuse this time.)

The lack of hitting is the virus behind the vague malaise that the Orioles have displayed while sleepwalking through May beating only lousy teams. Yes, they still have one of baseball's better records, sort of, and, yes, they'd be in or close to the lead in three of the other five divisions. But they look flat and they're underachieving like crazy. And it's not the bullpen's fault anymore. That's history. The bullpen had a terrific May. The rotation is holding up as well as anyone's. The bats are the problem.

It's not too hard to figure out what's gone wrong. Of the nine hitters expected to carry the load, four haven't done it. Jeffrey Hammonds has missed half of the season with injuries, and no one knows when he is coming back. Brady Anderson, Mike Devereaux and Chris Hoiles have hugged the infamous Mendoza Line. Palmeiro, Ripken, Baines and the others are doing just fine.

"When we were in New York [two weekends ago] we had three guys hitting .205 or .210," manager Johnny Oates said yesterday of Anderson, Devereaux and Hoiles. "I firmly believe they'll all end up at .265 or .270."

A manager has to say that, but there are reasons to expect all three to improve. Anderson is two points below his career .244 average, Devereaux 37 points below his career .256 average, Hoiles 46 points below his career .272 average. All of which means that they're probably not going to get any worse, and should get better. In fact, they already are. Anderson has hit in 13 straight games, Devereaux nine, Hoiles six.

"They're starting to hit the ball well, even if their averages don't show it," Oates said.

On the other hand, Anderson and Hoiles are certifiably streaky, capable of long cold spells, and Devereaux still looks painfully lost at times. It is possible that they just aren't going to live up to their solid statistics of the past few years. Far stranger things have happened.

(If they don't come around, you're going to be talking CFL Colts come September, pal. Remember, a rouge is worth one point.)

But listen, it's still early. The Orioles haven't even played the Yankees at Camden Yards. There's plenty of time for the lineup to earn back its capital letter and become a Lineup again.

Last night was a good place to start, even if the Orioles were just beating up on Tigers pitching, which is sort of mandatory, and still lost the game. It is just difficult to imagine a team with so many potent bats remaining so dormant for an entire season. There is just too much there . And anyway, the supply of "moussed" balls probably will run out soon.

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