Palmeiro must adjust in clutch

June 25, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

TORONTO -- His two-run single in the ninth increased the Orioles' lead from 3-1 to 5-1. Considering the Orioles' sorry SkyDome history, it was the perfect time for Rafael Palmeiro to deliver.

He's batting .336, and narrowly leads his red-hot rival, Will Clark, in doubles, home runs and runs scored. This could be a monster season for Palmeiro, if he can just start driving in more runs.

Clark entered last night tied for the American League lead with 67 RBIs. Palmeiro was tied for second on the Orioles with 38 -- tied with Leo Gomez, who had batted 92 fewer times.

"I'm not too happy with that," Palmeiro said. "As far as my batting average, doubles, runs scored and defense -- that's fine. But I should have 45 to 50 RBIs."

He doesn't, because he's batting a relatively modest .288 with men in scoring position. He doesn't, because the Orioles' 1-2 hitters have struggled all season.

By contrast, Clark is batting .425 with men in scoring position, and also getting more chances. He had 87 at-bats with men in scoring position entering last night, compared to 58 for Palmeiro.

No, the Orioles didn't sign the wrong first baseman. Palmeiro and Clark are only three months into their new five-year contracts. Both are proving worth the $30 million.

The Orioles suspected all along that Clark could provide a bigger one-year jolt -- that's one reason they tried to sign him before turning to the more laid-back Palmeiro.

But how long will Clark last?

Palmeiro still figures to prove a superior investment, simply because he's more durable. What's more, his 30-homer, 93-RBI pace isn't exactly an embarrassment.

"He's been more consistent than anybody on our ballclub," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "And there can't be too many who are more consistent in baseball."

Still, it remains to be seen if Palmeiro will ever be as much of an impact player as Clark. The Rangers entered last night ranked third in the AL in runs. The Orioles were tied for 12th.

They'd probably be last without Palmeiro, but already you can hear the old arguments surfacing. Clark is known as a clutch player. Palmeiro's critics in Texas claimed he was "soft."

With the season nearly half over, both perceptions seemingly are intact. Palmeiro is batting .208 with two outs and men in scoring position. Clark is hitting an astounding .432.

Twenty-one times this season, Clark has batted with a runner on third and less than two outs. Seventeen times, he has driven in the run -- a success rate of 81 percent.

Palmeiro has 13 home runs, but none with men in scoring position. Indeed, 11 of his homers have come with the bases empty. The other two were two-run shots.

Then again, .336 is .336 -- and a .412 on-base percentage isn't too shabby, either. If Palmeiro had as many chances to hit with men in scoring position as Clark, he'd probably have a dozen more RBIs.

"I'm not getting as many opportunities as I'd like," Palmeiro said. "But when I have those opportunities, I haven't been able to come through like I want to."

It becomes a vicious cycle -- the fewer chances you get, the more you press, the more you press, the fewer runs you drive in.

Things could improve now that Chris Sabo is in the No. 2 spot, but leadoff man Brady Anderson ranks third on the club with 51 strikeouts, and his on-base percentage is only .339.

No one hitter can carry a team by himself -- not even Clark. Already this season, Palmeiro has had hitting streaks of 24 and 16 games. But with no one on base, what did they matter?

A year ago at this time, the Texas offense started clicking, and Palmeiro erupted. He was named AL Player of the Month for July, batting .426 with 11 homers and 34 RBIs.

Amazing as his month was, it was nearly forgotten when he batted .150 with men in scoring position after Aug. 1. Still, Palmeiro finished with 105 RBIs, after three straight years of 89, 88 and 85.

That's not soft.

It's stunning.

He might not be Clark, but on this team, he shouldn't need to be. The Orioles should be getting more out of Anderson, Chris Hoiles and the injured Mike Devereaux.

Last night, Palmeiro batted with one out in the ninth against left-hander Dave Righetti, batted with men on second and third, the infield in and one out.

His two-run single through the middle gave the Orioles a four-run edge in a ballpark where they've frequently blown late-inning leads.

Give him the chance to prove he's not soft.

Give him the chance to be Will Clark.

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