Rogers' success reveals O's can be thrown off by lefties

September 08, 1997|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK -- For three days, the Orioles' series with the Yankees was remarkable for the way the Orioles dominated.

Yesterday, it was remarkable for a different reason: It made a temporary hero of Kenny Rogers, the Yankees' eternally troubled left-hander.

The weekend was still a huge success for the Orioles, who have an 8 1/2 -game lead and a hammerlock on their first division title in 14 years.

"We played great here," manager Davey Johnson said.

But Rogers' surprising effectiveness in the Yankees' 10-3 victory yesterday underlined an issue that could become troubling when the playoffs begin.

That issue is the Orioles' mixed record against left-handed pitching.

It's going to matter because the Seattle Mariners are starting to pull away in the AL West, which means the Orioles and Mariners are almost certain to meet in the first round of the playoffs.

The Mariners' top three starters -- Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer and Jeff Fassero -- are lefties, and the Orioles will have to hit them better than they hit Rogers yesterday if they want to have a happy October.

Rogers allowed one run in 5 1/3 innings and left to a standing ovation instead of the usual boos; it was a rare good day for a pitcher who has become one of George Steinbrenner's favorite goats since signing a $20 million contract in 1995.

True, Brady Anderson and B. J. Surhoff were given the day off, leaving the Orioles with one of their weakest lineups. Jerome Walton batting second?

But Rafael Palmeiro and Geronimo Berroa took their swings in the middle of the lineup, and Rogers still didn't allow a run after Cal Ripken's cheap, 320-foot homer in the first, enhancing the notion that the Orioles might be vulnerable to lefties.

Most teams would love to be so vulnerable, of course; the Orioles have a 28-17 record against left-handed starters, one of the best records in the game against lefties. They have consistently beaten Randy Johnson and Andy Pettitte, the league's top two lefties.

Considering that the Yankees' record against lefties is 21-25, you could argue that the Orioles' success is maybe the biggest difference between the clubs.

And yet, there is evidence suggesting that the Orioles will struggle against that steady diet of left-handers come October.

Many of their top players aren't hitting lefties nearly as well as righties this year.

The difference is downright stunning in some cases.

Palmeiro, for instance, is hitting .282 against righties, but just .211 against lefties -- a 71-point difference.

He's not alone, either.

Harold Baines is batting 89 points lower against lefties, Roberto Alomar is batting 85 points lower, Mike Bordick is batting 43 points lower, Anderson is batting 39 points lower and Ripken is batting 32 points lower.

Ouch.

Of the 10 Orioles with the most at-bats, only Berroa is faring better against lefties than righties -- a whopping 168 points better, in fact.

The message?

"Hard to figure, isn't it?" Palmeiro said. "We have a great won-loss record [against lefties] but our averages aren't nearly as good. I can't begin to explain that. I couldn't tell you in a million years how that happens. All I know is I'm doing terrible."

Until this year, Palmeiro didn't care who was pitching; his career averages were .295 against lefties and .285 against righties.

Much of the falloff in his average this year is attributable to his sudden failure against lefties.

"If I knew what the problem was, I'd fix it," he said. "I'm just struggling right now [against lefties], and I'm doing everything I can to get it corrected."

Might be a good idea to correct it by October, when the Orioles go on that all-lefty diet.

And yet, hitting coach Rick Down smiled yesterday at the suggestion that the Orioles have a problem with lefties.

"How can we have a problem when we have that great [won-lost] record against lefties?" Down said. "Regardless of what the averages are, the only thing that matters is winning. And that's been the nature of this team all season. They just find a way to win, somehow."

Down said most teams in the American League aren't hitting lefties as well this year.

"It's not just us," he said. "A lot of the best pitchers in the league are lefties this year, so [hitters] are having a tougher time."

Of the league's top 10 winningest pitchers, five -- an unusually high number -- are lefties.

And three of those five pitch in Seattle.

Hardly a comforting thought for an Orioles team that has struggled for consistent right-handed hitting since Eric Davis went down in May with cancer and Alomar's injuries rendered him useless against lefties.

The acquisition of Berroa was supposed to help the imbalance, but he also struggled until recently.

Somehow, some way, the Orioles still have managed to build a winning record against left-handed pitchers.

It's the mark of a team that has risen to many big occasions this year, a team that has often played better against quality opposition.

The Yankees and their 1-7 record against the Orioles can attest to that.

The Orioles' dominance of their rivals has turned the AL East race into a bore with three weeks left in the season.

It's garbage time, folks, time to play out the string and get ready for October.

But as Kenny Rogers left the field to an ovation yesterday, it also was time to go, "Hmmm."

Soft on lefties

Player .. .. ..vs. LHP .. ..vs. RHP .. ..Diff.

Anderson.. .. .. .267.. .. .. .306 .. .. ..-39

Surhoff.. .. ... .280.. .. .. .283 .. .. ...-3

Ripken.. .. .. . .266.. .. .. .298 .. .. ..-32

Bordick.. .. ... .194.. .. .. .237.. .. ...-43

Palmeiro.. .. .. .211.. .. .. .282 .. .. ..-71

Hoiles.. .. .. . .268.. .. .. .271 .. .. ...-3

Berroa.. .. .. . .382.. .. .. .214 .. .. .+168

Alomar.. .. .. . .237.. .. .. .322 .. .. ..-85

Hammonds.. .. .. .268.. .. .. .272 .. .. ...-4

Baines*.. .. ... .190.. .. .. .279 .. .. ..-89

* -- Stats since joining Orioles

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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