Not-as-strong Gibbons more than surviving

April 24, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

THE ORIOLES HAD a slugfest last night, and Jay Gibbons wasn't a part of it.

Strange, very strange.

Because in the previous eight games, Gibbons hit five home runs, and last night he didn't get a hit in three at-bats. But that's OK. Playing for a team that is on the verge of staring into the abyss, Gibbons is one of the main attractions these days at Camden Yards.

Even with the first-place Boston Red Sox in town last night, the Orioles drew only 26,301, which is only about 12,000 more than Maryland's men's basketball team gets at Cole Field House.

Thus far, one of the major highlights of the Orioles' season has been the team almost getting out of last place Sunday afternoon against Tampa Bay. Almost.

There have been some signs of a pulse, like outfielder Marty Cordova and first baseman/designated hitter David Segui hitting when they are healthy, but for the most part, some of the promising young players have struggled, such as second baseman Jerry Hairston, outfielder Chris Singleton and catcher Geronimo Gil.

But Gibbons, 25, has been the constant for a team in desperate need of recognizable faces. Before last night's 7-5 win against Boston, Gibbons was tied for second in the American League with seven home runs and was sixth in slugging percentage at .672. He led the Orioles with 21 hits and was second with a .313 batting average. This baby bird has market value.

But now, can he keep it up? And how will he handle some of the pressure that might come with it? This is a team looking for a few good men, and some more leadership.

"Right now, I'm concentrating on hitting No. 8," the left-handed hitting Gibbons said before the game. "I take it one by one. I've always been streaky in that department. I'll hit 10 [home runs] in two weeks, and not hit any for a month. That's just how it is. My swing sometimes just finds some loft. Hopefully, I'll keep hitting the ball hard, and it will get out of here every once in a while.

"Personally, I'm seeing it OK," he added. "As a team, we're struggling a little bit with the bats. The pitching has been great, we just need to pick it up on the offensive side. Personally, I'm not feeling any pressure. There is less pressure this year because I'm in the lineup every day and don't have to worry about a thing. I'm relaxed; that's all that I'm doing."

It's not what Gibbons is doing, but what he did in the off-season that is paying off. He stopped pumping so much iron, which helped cut down on the bulk. He went with a basic vegetarian diet for months, dropping 20 pounds to 190. Tofu, pasta and mixed greens were the preferred foods.

Basically, he took some of the air out of the pectorals and biceps and traded them in for more speed in running down fly balls in right field, and a quicker bat.

The body, though, is still ripped. The biceps are as thick as the barrel of a bat.

"I didn't recommend it, but I was very much in favor of it," said hitting coach Terry Crowley. "I mentioned to him last year a couple of times to take it easy in the weight room on the upper body, on the chest and arms. If you get too bulky in that area, it has tendency to slow the bat down a little bit. The range of motion is limited. He is being a bit more baseball sensible in the weight room now. He always has great bad speed, and is now maintaining it."

Said Gibbons: "It wasn't the greatest diet in the world. I wasn't enjoying my meals, but I got to liking it after a while because I saw the results."

Now the Orioles are seeing them as well. The Orioles got a glimpse of his power last year when Gibbons batted .258 with 13 home runs and 23 RBIs in his last 38 games. His 15 total homers led all AL rookies until a broken hamate bone in his right hand forced him to miss the rest of the season. He was put on the disabled list Aug. 6.

The time off really cost him.

"Last year, he joined the club from Double-A and didn't get much of a chance to play early in the year," Crowley said. "Then he got a chance to play as the season went along, showed us some power and a real nice swing. The last month of the season would have been a real valuable time for him. But what I've noticed over the two years we've had him is that his weaknesses are decreasing and his strengths are becoming more apparent every day."

One key may be his aggressiveness at the plate. Six of his seven home runs have come on the first pitch.

"I'm getting my pitch to hit, not missing," Gibbons said. "I'm more aggressive, but I'm still a hacker. I'll go up there and swing at anything I like, on any count. I feel like I belong here now."

But Gibbons knows that he has to continue to prove himself. This is a great window of opportunity that might close a little once outfielder Chris Richard returns from a shoulder injury near the All-Star break in July.

A 40-homer season might make him one of the team's most visible players. It also might give him a voice in the clubhouse, and a shining young player this franchise so desperately needs.

"Right now, I'm not even close to being a leader on this team," Gibbons said. "You got some veterans that speak up more than I do. I'm pretty quiet-spoken, and I just try to do it on the field. That may definitely change some day, but not right now."

And how about those 40 home runs?

"Come on now," said Gibbons, smiling. "Ask me that in September."

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