Season is a stitch in time for Gibbons

ORIOLES PLUS

He's packed with power, potential, but wrist suture blurs his signs of growth

September 08, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

At first glance, the numbers suggest stunted growth.

Jay Gibbons had 15 home runs in 225 at-bats as a rookie last season.

This season, he has managed 23 home runs in 426 at-bats .

Soon, those numbers will be emblazoned on the back of Gibbons' baseball card, and years from now, people can look back and judge that progress. Were these the signs that he was about to reach superstardom? Were these the signs that he was settling into his role as an average everyday big-league player?

The numbers, of course, won't tell the whole story. Not even close.

They can't possibly explain that tiny little suture that is pressing against a nerve in his right hand - the one left there inadvertently by a surgeon last year.

They can't possibly explain the way he winces in pain after certain swings, or the peculiar reaction his body has had after he dropped 15 pounds last winter.

Had Gibbons, 25, been healthy this season, who knows how good he might have been?

"Everybody gets little things here and there," Gibbons said. "I can't make any excuses, but I know I have the ability to play this game better than I'm playing."

The Orioles realize how tough it has been for him. Gibbons basically had one month - April - where his wrist didn't bother him. He hit seven home runs in April, despite losing an additional 6 pounds with a viral infection.

That was weight his body couldn't afford to lose after he had spent the winter trimming down his upper body to try to help his bat speed. Gibbons, an avid weightlifter, said he will probably take a different approach this offseason.

"I think [losing the weight] improved my defense, but I think I lost a little bit of power," Gibbons said. "Next year I'll probably go a little bit different route, put on weight again, but more on my legs. Try something different, go back to the drawing board."

Gibbons had a solid July, batting .314 with seven home runs, but he slumped to .165 in August, prompting Orioles manager Mike Hargrove to give him two consecutive games off this week.

Before this season, Gibbons had never played more than 132 games in a season, and that was in 2000 at Double-A Tennessee in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization.

The Orioles realize this is still his first full major-league season.

"Fatigue, more than anything, is hurting me right now," Gibbons said. "I've never played a season this long before. I need to suck it up and finish strong, mentally and physically.

"About two weeks ago, I started to feel a little bit tired. We had a doubleheader against Toronto [Aug. 24], and ever since then, I've felt a little bit off with my bat speed and everything. It's disappointing to me because it seems like the harder I try to concentrate, the worse it snowballs."

Hargrove said Gibbons' wrist probably bothers him more than he tells people.

"His swing is pretty long right now," Hargrove said, "and when his wrist is really right, he's got a much quicker, shorter stroke."

Gibbons hopes to have the wrist fixed once and for all this offseason. In August 2001, he broke the hamate bone in his right hand. When the surgeon removed the bone, he also repaired some cartilage damage. The sutures beneath the skin were meant to dissolve, but one of them didn't, and it's pressing right against a nerve.

At season's end, Gibbons plans to have the suture removed. If and when he has that procedure, he will also have the wrist checked for any further cartilage damage.

"I'm going to want them to go in and clean up whatever's in there, so next year I have zero worries about it," Gibbons said. "I definitely think next year is going to be the time where they say, `The time is now,' and I just want to get ready for that."

It's not like this has been a lost season. Even with the wrist injury, Gibbons has strengthened the impression he made last year, and Orioles officials still marvel at his power potential.

"He's a big, strong hitter, and you forget that he really hasn't played much over the Double-A level," said Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "So all in all, especially if he finishes up well, it'll be a very encouraging year.

"Power-wise, he's already done enough for me. I think what he needs to do the remainder of the way is hit some line drives to all fields and be a little more selective in what he swings at. Then I'll say he's had a real fine year."

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