Bottoms up: No. 9 Elster drains O's Rangers' rejuvenated vet having start to remember

Sidelight

April 28, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

If the Orioles' pitching staff has learned one thing over the past nine days, it is that there is no place to hide in the Texas Rangers' lineup -- and the proof is at the very bottom of the batting order.

Shortstop Kevin Elster, who came into spring training as a long shot to make the club and ended up in the starting lineup only after an injury sidelined Benji Gil, drove home the decisive runs in yesterday's 4-2 victory at Camden Yards.

Elster's two-out double to right in the eighth inning brought home Rusty Greer and Mark McLemore to extend a 2-1 lead and help the Rangers continue to run roughshod over the struggling Orioles.

It wasn't an isolated incident. Elster has eight RBIs against the Orioles alone and 19 in the first four weeks of the 1996 season, which isn't bad for a guy who had a total of nine major-league RBIs from 1992 until he won a place on the Rangers' roster this spring.

"I really don't know how to explain it," Elster said of his offensive rebirth. "I don't want to even think about it. I'm just thankful for it."

He had some good years with the New York Mets in the late 1980s and early '90s, but he was never what you'd call a terrific offensive producer. His greatest accomplishment in New York was the 88-game errorless streak in 1988-89 that stood as the major-league record for shortstops until Cal Ripken broke it with a 95-game streak in 1990. His career RBI high was 55 in 1989. He's more than a third of the way there in just 23 games and has as many home runs (4) as slugger Juan Gonzalez.

So where has this guy been the past four years? Elster, 31, was forced to the sidelines for nearly three seasons by a major shoulder injury. He went to spring camp with the San Diego Padres in 1994 and played with the New York Yankees briefly in each of the past two seasons, but probably not enough to rate a regular major-league job until Gil -- the club's 23-year-old shortstop of the future -- underwent back surgery in March.

Elster didn't help his cause when he made two errors in his first exhibition game, but he has committed just one error since the season began and he's right on the fringe of the American League RBI rankings.

"I don't think anybody expected Kevin to have the RBIs he has now," Rangers manager Johnny Oates said, "but he's playing exactly the way I was told he could. When it looked like Benji might not be able to play, I went to three of the people I respect the most in this game -- John Vukovich of the Phillies, Jim Fregosi of the Phillies and Gene Michael. They said this guy could catch the ball with anybody in the major leagues, he's got a gotcha arm and he will get you a big hit when you least expect it.

"I feel very confident with him at the plate. He's doing everything situationally that I have asked him to do with the bat."

The Orioles have done a lot to help him upgrade his image as an offensive player. He drove in five runs in the 26-7 free-for-all in Arlington on April 19, four of them on a grand slam off shortstop-turned-reliever Manny Alexander in the 16-run eighth inning. But that doesn't diminish the contribution he has made to the Rangers' strong start.

"Right now, I'm just feeling good at the plate," he said. "I'm just enjoying the ride."

Gil is expected back in three or four weeks, which could set up Oates for a very difficult decision if Elster continues to produce at the plate. But it apparently has not created an uncomfortable situation in the Rangers' clubhouse.

"I love Benji . . . we're very good friends," Elster said. "We both wish the best for each other. He'll be playing somewhere. Probably here."

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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