Hits keep coming for Conine, O's

His 2nd 4-for-4 game of series finishes sweep of Twins, 9-3

DeShields, Minor hit HRs

Johnson rebounds, goes 7 innings for fourth win

August 20, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles may have little tangible left to play for this season, but Jeff Conine is fighting to regain his reputation.

A former National League All-Star and 100-RBI outfielder, Conine extended his late-season audition as a pending free agent with four hits in the Orioles' 9-3 win over the Minnesota Twins before an afternoon crowd of 38,320 at Camden Yards. Having spent most of this season waiting to play based on the availability of others, Conine does not shy from making a statement.

"I've felt like I could still contribute to a team every day. When you're in a role where that's not possible you want people to know that you can still do it every day," he said.

Conine converted the Twins. Conine's four-hit game was the 13th of his career, third of the season and second of the Orioles' three-game sweep, which included the platoon first baseman's three doubles, a home run and four RBIs vs. right-handed pitching. Yesterday's breakout came within an 11-hit attack that featured rookie third baseman Ryan Minor's first major-league home run, a three-run shot by second baseman Delino DeShields that put the Orioles ahead 7-0 in the fifth inning, and six extra-base hits from a lineup checked on only five hits the night before.

The pounding against Twins starter Dan Perkins (1-6) allowed Jason Johnson to break a run of consecutive troubled outings with his first win since Aug. 4.

Armed with a much-improved curveball, Johnson (4-7) struck out a career-high seven while allowing five hits in seven innings. Not even the presence of home plate umpire Durwood Merrill, whom Johnson accused of a too-severe strike zone in an Aug. 9 start, distracted him.

"He said `atta boy, Johnson way to go right at 'em,' a couple times between innings," Johnson said. "I said, `Thanks, Durwood.' "

But it was Conine who left his signature on the series. Given five consecutive starts because of Will Clark's sore left elbow, Conine continued to make the case that he isn't ready to be typecast as a sometimes player.

Conine, 33, began this season as the Orioles' only first baseman to have averaged 25 home runs and 100 RBIs in consecutive years since 1994. He also arrived in an April 2 trade from the Kansas City Royals well aware his platoon role would be subordinate to Clark and left-handed designated hitter Harold Baines. Given Conine is a pending free agent whose value will be predicated on whether teams see him as an everyday or role player, the issue is hardly inconsequential.

Conine drove in the Orioles' third run with a third-inning double, scored the fifth run following his fifth-inning single and knocked in their last run on a sixth-inning single. Not only has Conine become a humorous fixture within a veteran clubhouse, he has also resurrected a season that began with an unexpected trade, a disappointing role and a deflating April slump.

Hitting only .130 on May 1, Conine completed a 9-for-11 series, representing the high mark of his season as he pushed his average to .311, fourth on the team to Cal Ripken, Baines and B. J. Surhoff. Conine batted .337 in May, .327 in June, .317 in July and stands on .396 this month. He has failed to hit safely in consecutive games only once since June 26 and his overall average represents the second-highest of a nine-year career that included 105 RBIs in 483 at-bats in 1995 and 26 home runs in 1996 with the Florida Marlins. A substandard 1997 and injuries last season with Kansas City affected his reputation as a run-producer. Rehabilitation continues.

"Jeff came over here to a new team at the end of spring training -- a new manager, new teammates, new coaches and he got off to a bit of a rough start. What stands out is he handled it like a man. He handled it professionally. He made no excuses. He just continued to work," assessed hitting coach Terry Crowley. "Anytime a hitter can keep his composure under the worst conditions, you know as soon as he turns the corner he will handle it extremely well."

Conine's surge has coincided not only with greater opportunity but with his commitment to attacking early in counts rather than waiting for them to work in his favor.

Most telling is the presence of only two walks among Conine's last 146 plate appearances and two strikeouts within his last 49 at-bats.

Over the last two seasons, Conine has 18 home runs and 93 RBIs in 614 at-bats despite being hampered by injuries last season. Asked whether he believes he could sustain that kind of production over a single season, he said, "I think so. Maybe more."

"You've got to consider what position in the lineup you're going to hit and what kind of team you're going to be around. A good team and a good spot in the lineup I can do that," said Conine. "You're only as good as the people around you. If there's nobody on base to drive in, you're not going to drive in 100 runs. If guys are on base, it's attainable."

The Orioles have so far voiced no interest in retaining Conine, nor is he expecting any.

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