Gibbons is near hitting big time

2nd-year Oriole makes rapid strides, hitting .368 vs. tough first-week cast

His patience still needs work

Everyday play brings comfort level

`game has slowed down,' a good sign

April 10, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Looking to kill time before last night's rainout with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons leafed through a catalog from a Chicago shoe store, where the average pair of loafers sells for about $900.

The Orioles will be in Chicago on Friday, but Gibbons had no intentions of ordering ahead. "Too expensive for me," he said.

That might be the case right now, but the Orioles are pretty confident Gibbons will be able to afford such luxuries in a few years. If the first week of the season was any indication, Gibbons will get his share of hits.

As a team, the Orioles are batting .167. Gibbons is batting .368.

It's so early in the season, Gibbons is downplaying the significance of his first 19 at-bats, but with the team off to a discouraging 1-5 start, he's been one of the lone bright spots, offensively.

Last year, as a rookie who had never played above Double-A, Gibbons hit .236 with 15 home runs in 225 at-bats before breaking the hamate bone in his right hand. The Orioles were eager to see how that would translate over an entire season, especially now that manager Mike Hargrove has made him the everyday right fielder.

"The game has slowed down for me a little bit from last year, which is a good sign," Gibbons said. "I'm not rushing to swing at every pitch. Last year, I wanted to do it all on every pitch, instead of trying to take a walk or advancing the runner."

The Orioles faced a virtual All-Star team of starting pitchers in the first week - Roger Clemens, David Wells, Mike Mussina, Derek Lowe, Frank Castillo and Pedro Martinez - but Gibbons still drew three walks, giving him an on-base percentage of .455.

With one double and one home run, Gibbons has a team-best slugging percentage of .579. No one else has a slugging percentage higher than .353.

But Gibbons has also grounded into three of the Orioles' four double plays.

"He's been very anxious and aggressive at the plate," Hargrove said. "He swung at a lot of first pitches, which didn't make me happy, but on the other hand, he's put a lot of balls in play."

Then Hargrove noted how Gibbons leads the Orioles with seven hits. No one else has more than four.

"So," Hargrove said, "if he continues to hit like that, I'll be unhappy all year, and that's OK.

"But I'd rather see him be a little more patient, a little more selective."

A year ago, Hargrove shied away from letting the left-handed-hitting Gibbons face left-handed pitchers. Gibbons hit .370 against lefties but that came in just 27 at-bats. Now, Hargrove seems intent on keeping Gibbons' bat in the lineup no matter what.

The only left-handed starter the Orioles have faced is Wells, and in three at-bats that night, Gibbons showed the good, the bad and the ugly. First, he singled through the hole between shortstop and third base, then he grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, and in his final at-bat, with two men on and two outs, he fouled out to the third baseman.

"I've been fooled a few times, especially with runners on base," Gibbons said. "I've hit into a couple double plays where I've rolled over on some pitches, just getting a little anxious. I've got to wait for my pitch to hit. I think that comes with experience."

At age 25, Gibbons is making $232,500 this season. If he keeps up this success for a couple more years, he might be able to add a zero to that salary, and suddenly those fancy shoes won't seem so expensive.

"I still have a lot of work to do," Gibbons said. "But I'm a lot more relaxed."

Orioles tonight

Opponent:Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site:Camden Yards

Time:7:05

TV/Radio:CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters:Devil Rays' Paul Wilson (0-0, 1.13) vs. Orioles' Jason Johnson (0-1, 1.17)

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