O's pitchers get jump, put stealers on hold Keeping runners close swipes edge for Hoiles

March 14, 1997|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It comes with the protective mask and shinguards.

A runner steals second base, and the catcher feels the heat. A runner gets a huge jump and goes in standing, and the catcher feels the heat.

The Orioles are trying to pull Chris Hoiles from the fire.

One of their first orders of business this spring was to make sure the pitchers were doing a better job holding runners. Keep them near the bag, so a stolen base won't be in one.

This kind of logic is music to Hoiles' ears, which must be ringing from the constant reminders that he threw out only 21 of 110 base stealers last season. That breaks down to 19 percent. And that's unacceptable to both the catcher and the organization.

"He never was known for his arm," said manager Davey Johnson. "He's got a quick release. He's worked at it. He's a little stronger. But they're not running as much [this spring] because we're trying to hold them on."

Hoiles, who will turn 32 on Thursday, has cut down two of four would-be stealers. His throws, even the ones that arrived late, were straight and true.

"I came in here with a plan," he said. "Offensively and defensively, it's been pretty much to the tee. I know what I want to accomplish down here, and, hopefully, it will start the season off the way I want it."

Hoiles, entering the third year of a five-year, $17.25 million contract, is a notoriously slow starter. He has made some adjustments at the plate during camp by hitting more to the opposite field. And he's hoping for better success behind it.

Since 1991, his first full season in the majors, Hoiles has thrown out 139 of 546 runners (25.5 percent). He has hit at least 19 home runs for five consecutive years, but the focus always shifts to what he hasn't done.

The Orioles placed Hoiles on waivers last season to gauge interest from other clubs, then removed him. They examined other options, through trades and free agency, before signing veteran Lenny Webster in December as a backup.

"It bothers me to a certain extent," Hoiles said. "People have to place the blame somewhere, and they always seem to place it on me, which is fine. But if you look at the numbers, I'm not the only one back there. I play 90 percent of the games, but we've got other guys with the same percentage of throw-outs that I have. Obviously, you have to look at some other areas."

L That's what Johnson and pitching coach Ray Miller have done.

"Thinking like the other manager helps. You have to know when they're going to run and when they're not going to run," said Miller, who has seen Orioles pitchers successfully pick off runners a couple of times this spring.

"The main thing we're doing is making the pitcher hold the ball. When he throws over or when he comes set, step off or whatever, hold the ball for any length of time so the runner might tip what he's going to do. If that happens, the manager might take [the steal sign] off or they won't go on the next pitch. And it gives Chris a little bit better look, a little bit more time to throw and keep the guy there for one more pitch.

"At this point, it's worked out for the best. And confidence goes a long way. If Chris thinks he's going to throw somebody out, he's got a good chance."

Hoiles just wants his pitchers to give him that chance. "The biggest thing is making them aware there is a guy over there and not forgetting about him," he said.

"It's definitely helped in all areas, as far as the pitcher's well-being and mine. The last couple of years, I think we've gotten away from it. We've forgotten about that aspect of the game."

The constant reminders won't be the only benefit for Hoiles, who hit 25 homers and drove in 73 runs in 127 games last season. Just as important, he's healthier this year after battling shoulder problems the past couple of summers.

"His arm strength wasn't there, but it might have taken a year to recover from the year before," said bench coach Andy Etchebarren, a major-league catcher for 15 seasons.

"Right now, he's throwing the ball better. He's got better carry to the ball. It's not really that much harder, but the carry is better and it's truer. It's not dying right or dying left. And his footwork is outstanding. He's got his right foot really moving quick, getting it set where he can release the ball quicker than he did last year."

Etchebarren then adds what could become the Orioles' mantra this year. "You've got to give the catcher an opportunity to throw somebody out."

"If you're a pitcher who teams are going to run off," said left-hander Jimmy Key, "you have to find a way to do something about it."

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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