Surhoff remains consistent, but now it's on down side

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Left fielder attacks slump with same work ethic

hint helps McElroy Orioles

May 21, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Texas - Orioles left fielder B.J. Surhoff is confronting the most difficult struggle in his tenure as an Oriole. Out of theories on what to do about it, he says the best remaining course is to maintain a consistent approach and wait for a bad run to end.

Surhoff set career highs in hits (207), home runs (28), RBIs (107) and runs (104) last season, earning him recognition as Orioles Most Valuable Player and his first All-Star berth.

Surhoff constructed the season through consistency. The left fielder enjoyed a 21-game hitting streak and a 15-game hit streak before the All-Star break and set a career high in home runs for the fourth time in five seasons.

He has never hit below.279 in four previous seasons with the Orioles but admits he is now experiencing his most difficult period since his time with the Milwaukee Brewers."I haven't dealt with anything like this since I've been here," Surhoff said yesterday before taking a .239 average, four home runs and 17 RBIs into the game with the Texas Rangers. "But the only thing you can do is keep working. Eventually something will click in."

Last season, Surhoff's average never tumbled below .300 after April 15 as he was held hitless in only seven of his first 44 games. This year, Surhoff, who was 1-for-4 last night, again started with a rush, batting .350 through 19 games, but has since tumbled into a profound funk. He is hitting only .144 (13-for-90) in his last 24 games and .085 (3-for-35) in his last 10. He has fallen into a predictable pattern of swinging at pitches out of the strike zone then having to battle from behind in counts. The result has been a disproportionate 25 strikeouts in 163 at-bats and a .303 on-base percentage, lowest among Orioles regulars."It's been going on for more than a couple weeks," he said. "I've just gotten into a situation where I'm swinging at a lot of balls out of the zone. It's not something I'm used to, but I just have to ride it out and keep working."

Surhoff has gone hitless in 16 games, his fourth-inning double sparing him last night. He didn't experience his 16th hitless game last season until Aug.3.

A tireless disciple of hitting coach Terry Crowley, Surhoff has tried to address the slump with additional hitting and no hitting before games. The funk has reached a point where he no longer is concerned about a mechanical defect but is convinced his mental outlook is holding him back."You try to treat every at-bat separately," Surhoff, 35, said before hitting out of the No. 3 slot, "but that's easier said than done when you're going through something like this."

Manager Mike Hargrove has remained squarely behind his left fielder, believing that Surhoff's workaholic nature will inevitably lift him from his doldrums.

After briefly dropping him to sixth in the order, Hargrove has allowed him the protection of Albert Belle in the third slot. Hargrove consistently has resisted the idea of sitting Surhoff, which would end his major-league-high record of consecutive games at 365.

A new McElroy

An adjustment recently suggested by bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks has returned left-handed reliever Chuck McElroy to a comfort zone for the first time this season.

Something as seemingly insignificant as changing where he stands on the pitching rubber has improved McElroy's outlook and, more practically, his ability to pitch inside against right-handed hitters."Elrod told me I had been in his thinking for some time. He had watched me and picked up some things about my delivery and made a suggestion," said McElroy. "That impressed me, that he had thought about what I was doing and offered something."

Hendricks approached McElroy in New York with a suggestion that he move from the first base side of the rubber to the middle.

Hendricks told McElroy he wasn't fully extending to reach his release point, costing him velocity and movement.

In two appearances since, McElroy has pitched 3 1/3 shutout innings in Toronto on May 10 and 1 1/3 innings against the Boston Red Sox on May 14. He had allowed 12 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings in his previous five games. McElroy says the adjustment has restored 2-3 miles per hour to his fastball along with greater freedom of movement.

Hargrove concedes McElroy - whose ERA is at 8.53 with 23 base runners in 12 2/3 innings - must restore his standing and now remains slotted in long and middle relief. Even given the recent struggles of rookie left-hander B.J. Ryan, McElroy's role does not extend into the eighth inning of close games.

Admittedly excited to work his new find, McElroy remains patient. He has appeared only three times since April 26 and hasn't been seen in a win since April 21."I'm not thinking about that," said McElroy. "Before, I would worry about how I was being used and all it did was take away from my focus. You can't pitch when you're trying to think with the manager. You keep yourself ready then do the job when you're called upon."

Buddy Groom Day

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