Anemic offense puts club in high danger of reaching new low

Inside the Orioles

If team batting average drops further, O's could go into books for futility

Baseball

May 13, 2001|By Joe Strauss | By Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The Orioles headed into this weekend's series against the New York Yankees with the weakest offensive attack since the dawn of the designated hitter.

Of course, that's based on the Orioles maintaining their subterranean team batting average. It also doesn't account for cleanup hitter David Segui's absence due to repeated hamstring pulls and a strained tendon that immobilized fingers on his left hand.

The Orioles will hit, manager Mike Hargrove says. They might not hit much, but they'll hit more than the bunch that averaged 3.77 runs in its first 35 games, endured 12 consecutive games with five runs or fewer in a league in which teams average 4.83 runs a game, and was still waiting for somebody to outdo Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado's Opening Day home run total (three).

The Orioles are doing for offense what Roseanne did for the singing of the national anthem.

That said, Hargrove repeatedly has invoked the truism that it is foolhardy to believe in tendencies before the season's 40th game. The Orioles will be only two games removed from the season's quarter pole when they leave Yankee Stadium this afternoon, but they've already established themselves as an inexperienced offensive team that buttresses ordinary pitching with solid defense.

The current .232 team batting average puts them in danger of becoming the only American League team to bat below .230 since the inception of the designated hitter in 1973. But for the love of Ron Blomberg, the Orioles need only hit .230 the rest of this season to avoid the ignominy.

More damaging than that league-worst .232 average has been a .305 on-base percentage that puts them in the neighborhood of the horrid Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"There are two reasons we haven't run as much as we thought," second baseman Jerry Hairston said. "The first is that we're playing behind a lot. The second reason is that the guys who are supposed to do a lot of the running haven't done a good job of getting on base, myself included."

Hairston has a .278 on-base percentage. compared with leadoff hitter Brady Anderson's .258, last year's stolen base leader Delino DeShields' .327 and Melvin Mora's .303. The league average through Thursday was .330. Only Greg Myers (.436) and Chris Richard (.368) top the league average among Orioles with more than 20 plate appearances.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift and Hargrove rightfully stated during spring training that speed shows up every day, while power is fickle.

Unspoken is the adage that speed is hostage to on-base percentage.

Or more bluntly, you can't steal first base.

Spring's promise of an aggressive, risk-taking offense has been kept - to an extent. The approach has often appeared forced, such as when Cal Ripken is used on a delayed steal or unsuccessfully attempts to go from first to third in a one-run game.

Outfielder Eugene Kingsale's brief promotion this month reinforced organizational thought that the eternal prospect's speed does not translate to base-running acumen.

"When you don't get people on base, it's tough to be aggressive on the bases," Hargrove said. "That all goes together. When you're getting base runners and putting the ball in play consistently - I don't necessarily mean getting hits but putting the ball in play - it's easier to push the envelope.

"I think as we have gone along and done that, we've been pretty aggressive ... not like in spring training. There were some times in spring training we took chances that scared me."

In a dogged search for power and production, Hargrove has resorted to lineups that have included catcher Fernando Lunar and designated hitter Myers, now a catcher in name only.

Ripken has gained increased time due to rookie Mike Kinkade's slumping bat and injured right ankle. Jeff Conine has received significant time while Segui's hand injury mends. While the club promotes Richard's outfield defense, his speed has never allowed him more than nine stolen bases in a season.

The team's most consistent base-stealing threat entering this weekend's series had been 35-year-old shortstop Mike Bordick.

The Orioles entered the weekend fifth in the league in stolen bases (25) and had four more yesterday. Last year's team had 36 steals after May en route to leading the league with 126 steals.

Even conceding a hike in production, they have a chance to become the first team since the 1989 Atlanta Braves to hit below .235. Two years before their worst-to-first renaissance, the Braves were a decrepit team that managed a measly .300 on-base perecentage.

The 1985 San Francisco Giants batted only. 233 while scoring 556 runs (an average of 3.43 a game) and suffering a 62-100 record. The 1976 California Angels were the last American League team to hit .235 or less, but that team scratched out a 76-86 record by stealing 126 bases and working 534 walks.

Not since the 1974 San Diego Padres batted .229 has a major-league club failed to hit .230. The last American League team to endure such offensive futility was the 1972 Orioles, who amazingly constructed a strike-shortened 80-74 record around a .229 team average. That team amassed 20 shutouts and 21 saves.

Jim Palmer won 21 games with a 2.07 ERA, but was likely denied a fourth Cy Young Award by lacking offensive support. Coming off three consecutive American League championships, the '72 Orioles hit only 85 home runs to offset a 2.54 team ERA.

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