O's hope leading man is Hairston

Young 2nd baseman gets first crack at top of the order

March 09, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. - There are moments when Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston looks every bit like a leadoff hitter. He takes pitches, works deep into the count, finds a way to get on base and ignite a rally.

There also are moments, defined by the big swing, the stumble out of the box, the manager's bowed head, when Hairston looks more like an aspiring cleanup hitter.

The Orioles saw both sides of Hairston earlier this week in a game against the Minnesota Twins. He walked on five pitches in the first inning, flinging his bat and hustling up the line, and later was called out on strikes with the count full. The ball appeared to be outside, and Hairston correctly laid off it.

"You want to be patient and selective," he said.

You also want to resist certain temptations. Coming up after a Brook Fordyce homer in the fifth, Hairston almost jumped out of his socks while chasing a 1-1 pitch from Jack Cressend and flying to left.

Such regressions are becoming less frequent for Hairston, part of a grand experiment this spring that leaves the Orioles in a serious bind if unsuccessful.

Marking a leadoff hitter among their many needs this winter, the Orioles have given Hairston, 25, the first opportunity to replace Brady Anderson. They like Chris Singleton batting second, where he posted a .319 average in 45 games last season with the Chicago White Sox, and prefer keeping Mike Bordick lower in the order. Options aren't exactly plentiful.

With Melvin Mora preparing for a utility role, Hairston makes the most sense to the Orioles among everyday players. He stole 29 bases last season but also had a .305 on-base percentage in 532 at-bats, which won't cut it.

Changing his placement in the lineup - he often batted ninth last season - meant also changing his approach. Hairston has concentrated on shortening his swing and waiting longer on the ball, theories that come to life in every game.

"That goes for wherever I'm at in the lineup, whether it's leading off or hitting ninth. It doesn't matter," he said. "You want to be patient and be selective. You want to get a good pitch to hit, whether it's the first pitch or the fifth. If you don't get it, take the walk."

But also don't be afraid to take a healthy cut. There's a fine line between patience and passiveness, and the Orioles want to make sure Hairston recognizes the difference.

"You want to be patient as a leadoff hitter, but you don't want to be so patient that you get yourself into bad hitting counts," Hargrove said. "You still want to be an aggressive swinger and Jerry will always be that. In the innings that he's led off, he's allowed himself to get into good hitting counts. And then he's put the ball into play. He's doing a good job."

"I'm still going to be aggressive," Hairston said, "and I'll be more aggressive in certain situations, like if there's a runner in scoring position. If it's the first pitch, I'll be hacking. If I'm trying to get on base and maybe start an inning, I want to make sure I get a good pitch to hit and really work the pitcher. That's one of those things I have to read, like how the pitcher is throwing. That will dictate a lot.

"I think the biggest thing is I'm maturing as a hitter. They feel I've got the capabilities to do it. I had the year I had last year and still stole almost 30 bases. I think that's big. Obviously if my average goes up and my on-base percentage goes up, I'm going to have more opportunities to steal bases, especially in the leadoff hole. But I always envisioned myself as a one or two hitter."

The Orioles haven't always shared that vision. Hairston was seen as too undisciplined at the plate, with a swing that didn't match his modest stature. Take a ball? He'd rather knock the cover off it.

To make this work, Hairston had to buy into the Orioles' plan, had to find the beauty in an opposite-field single or a walk and stolen base. Before sitting out his first game yesterday, a 5-1 win over the New York Mets, Hairston was batting .286 and tied for the club lead with four runs scored, four walks and nine total bases.

"Jerry's paying attention to what we're trying to get him to do, and that's the first hurdle," Hargrove said. "It's not like, `Let's try this for two days and if it doesn't work, then I'll go in another direction.' Jerry is sticking with his game plan and doing well. If he continues to do that, he's going to give himself every chance in the world to be a good leadoff hitter.

"I haven't seen anything so far that tells me he can't do it and hasn't bought into it. For the most part he's laid off the high pitch. I haven't seen him overswing that many times like he did a lot last year. He's doing a lot of things right."

And when he forgets or just needs a quick review, Hargrove and hitting coach Terry Crowley are in his ear. "Constantly. All the time," Hargrove said.

"If Jerry can show us that he's a leadoff hitter, I don't know that there's anybody else on this ballclub who we'd need to teach how to do that."

"I feel very comfortable there," Hairston said, "and I'm excited about it."

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