DeShields breaks out of zone of unknown

Wary of new strike zone, veteran takes 2 swings on road back from .083

April 17, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Delino DeShields always prided himself on being a patient hitter, one who could work a count in his favor and hold the advantage over any pitcher. Balls out of the strike zone didn't tempt him. They never could in 11 seasons as a major-league player.

But that was back when DeShields knew what a strike was, which no longer is true. Does anybody?

Last year's Most Valuable Oriole had become the team's most frustrated. His average was down to .083 before last night's game against Tampa Bay, with 11 strikeouts in 36 at-bats. And the torment continued in the first inning when he bounced into a force after Brady Anderson, himself mired in a vicious slump, led off with a single.

Executing a reversal that would have made any wrestler proud, DeShields worked the count full in the third and lined Ryan Rupe's fastball into right-center field for a single. With two outs in the fifth, he went the other way with an 0-1 pitch and singled again to bring in the tiebreaking run.

They weren't blinding, but his fourth and fifth hits of the season qualified as tiny rays of light.

"He looked much better tonight," said manager Mike Hargrove. "He did a great job. The two-out hit to left was a huge at-bat for him and for us."

Not wanting to make excuses, DeShields at least offered a passable explanation for his slow start.

"It's not really knowing what to swing at. Some guys can hit bad pitches and get hits. I'm not like that," he said.

"Tentative might be the word. It might be me not being sure right now. You have to go up there and hack. You've got to swing the bat. It sounds simple, but then you get in the box and you're still trained to swing at good pitches. But when it's called [a strike] time and time again, it's a little frustrating because you really don't know."

Umpires have been instructed to call the high strike, which has been done regularly the first two weeks. But they also were supposed to reduce the width of the zone. DeShields, among others, still is waiting for that change to take hold.

"In spring training it was higher but it wasn't wider. Now it's wider and it's higher," he said. " ... But it's really up to me to make those adjustments. You're supposed to be able to do that at this level."

"That certainly gets in your mind," Hargrove said, "but what you have to understand as a hitter is you can't change your game. You have to trust the umpires to call the zone the way it's supposed to be called and stay with your game, which is what made you good. Eventually, Bop [DeShields] will get back to that. Hopefully sooner rather than later."

Given the chance to break open the game in the seventh, DeShields bounced to the mound with the bases loaded and none out. A high throw from reliever Ken Hill allowed the run to score. He saw two pitches and swung at both. He also grounded out in the eighth, stranding Anderson at second base and leaving his average at .122.

It wasn't like this last season, when he batted .296 with career highs in doubles (43) and RBIs (86). He felt more in control.

"Delino's going to be OK," Hargrove said. "He's too good of a hitter not to be OK.

"Players like Delino and Brady ... for every at-bat that goes sour on them, that just puts them that much closer to the time they're going to get hot."

A few more multi-hit games and DeShields might even warm to the idea of a different strike zone.

A few more like the ones he experienced before last night, and the sport might leave him cold.

"People keep saying it's early," he said, "but pretty soon it's not going to be early anymore."

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