Geared up, O's need to hit in clutch

March 27, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Every spring, it's the same refrain: Boy, the Orioles' lineup looks great. This team will hit, that's for sure.

Then the season starts.

And, inevitably, the offense fails to deliver.

Overrating your club is a rite of spring -- not just in Baltimore, but every major-league city.

Why should this spring be different?

Well, the Orioles added an offensive-oriented manager, a hitting coach whose teams won two batting titles and, last but not least, two .300 hitters.

L Their attack could be as potent as Boston's and Cleveland's.

But we'll believe it when we see it.

Oh, manager Davey Johnson will be aggressive. Hitting coach Rick Down will be a welcome change from Lee May. And Roberto Alomar alone will make a huge difference.

B. J. Surhoff, a healthy Jeffrey Hammonds, a full season of Bobby Bonilla -- yes, from the first spot to the ninth, the lineup could be very dangerous.

Still, the offense has been such a disappointment the past four seasons, it's difficult to get too excited.

The Orioles have contended each of those years, but you'd barely know it from where they ranked in the American League in runs scored.

Eighth, sixth, seventh and ninth.

Middle of the pack, at best.

As usual last season, the Orioles' lineup looked better on paper than it did on the field. Never was that more true than in pressure situations.

The club's .270 average with runners in scoring position was fourth lowest in the AL. And when the game was close in the late innings, no team hit as poorly.

"Close & Late" is the statistic devised by STATS Inc. to measure performance when a) the game is in the seventh inning or later and b) the batting team is leading by one run, tied or has the tying run on base, at bat or on deck.

The Orioles' .223 batting average in such situations last season was last in the AL by eight points, 37 points below the league average, and 66 points behind Down's league-leading New York Yankees.

Was all that the fault of Phil Regan?

Cal Ripken hit .147 in "Close & Late," Brady Anderson .216, Chris Hoiles .218. The two club leaders -- Harold Baines (.314) and Kevin Bass (.293) -- are gone. Then again, so are Jeff Manto (.158) and Curtis Goodwin (.132).

No wonder the Orioles were 16-21 in one-run games, while the Cleveland Indians were 28-14 and the Boston Red Sox 25-15. This team did not perform in the clutch -- hasn't really, since the early 1980s.

That's why Alomar is such an important addition. By his standards, 1995 was something of an off-year. Yet, he still hit .389 in "Close & Late" -- the sixth-highest average in the majors.

Alomar is everything the Orioles have lacked -- a take-charge performer, a late-inning hitter, a big-game player. He could singlehandedly transform a lineup composed of largely complementary players.

Rafael Palmeiro is the club's other pure hitter, and he's coming off a monster year. Bonilla batted .333 after arriving July 30, an impressive feat considering he had to adjust to a new league while playing for a sinking ship.

Ripken? Hoiles? Anderson? They're productive enough, but they can't carry a team. No wonder new general manager Pat Gillick wound up adding as many hitters as pitchers, even though he had to replace Ben McDonald and Kevin Brown and rebuild virtually his entire bullpen.

Gillick couldn't just stop with Alomar. He acquired a tough out in Surhoff, then picked up outfielders Mike Devereaux and Tony Tarasco -- though Tarasco (.175) was another "Close & Late" disaster last season with Montreal and Atlanta.

Which brings us to Hammonds.

He, too, is essentially new, having been injured for much of the past three seasons. And he's batting .423 this spring, showing every sign of finally becoming the Orioles' Manny Ramirez, only with more speed and less power.

On paper, it's a formidable group -- perhaps not as good as Cleveland's, Boston's and even New York's, but considering the premium the Orioles place on pitching and defense, probably good enough.

Plus, don't forget that Johnson will instill a sense of calm that was never present under Regan and Johnny Oates. He'll keep players fresh. He'll reassure those who are slumping. He'll manage with a plan instead of in a panic.

Where are we headed?

To our usual spring conclusion:

Boy, the Orioles' lineup looks great.

This team will hit, that's for sure.

Down and Johnson recently had a conversation about the team's offensive potential.

"Would 800 runs be enough?" Down asked.

"Eight hundred would be fine," Johnson replied.

The club record is 818, set in 1985.

Go for it, gentlemen.

Cold in the clutch

Last season, the Orioles were the worst-hitting team in the American League in the late innings of close games. Below are individual and team performances in "Close & Late" situations as defined by STATS Inc. (the game is in the seventh inning or later and the batting team is leading by one run, tied or has the tying run on base, at bat or on deck).

Individuals

Returning Orioles

Bobby Bonilla ...... .269

Manny Alexander .... .258

Rafael Palmeiro .... .257

Chris Hoiles ....... .218

Brady Anderson ..... .216

Cal Ripken ......... .147

Jeffrey Hammonds ... .083

New Orioles

Roberto Alomar ..... .389

Mike Devereaux ..... .257

B. J. Surhoff ...... .250

Tony Tarasco ....... .175

American League rankings

New York ........... .289

Seattle ............ .286

Cleveland .......... .281

Boston ............. .279

Toronto ............ .275

Milwaukee .......... .260

Texas .............. .259

Kansas City ........ .257

Chicago ............ .255

Minnesota .......... .255

Oakland ............ .255

California ......... .243

Detroit ............ .231

Orioles ............ .223

League average ..... .260

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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