Orioles lead off with Hairston back atop order

`More patient,' infielder gets nod, though Matthews is a candidate if he fails

February 23, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A year ago, it was a spring training experiment. This time, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove is sure.

When Hargrove starts making out lineup cards Thursday for the start of exhibition play, second baseman Jerry Hairston will be in the leadoff spot.

Hargrove made that official yesterday, saying the leadoff job is Hairston's to lose with Gary Matthews in waiting as another leadoff option if Hairston falters.

"Jerry was a much more patient hitter the second half of [last] season than he was the first half," Hargrove said. "It looked like he adjusted his approach to the type of game he needs to have."

Last spring, Hargrove inserted Hairston into the leadoff spot to see what he could do atop the lineup. Hairston tore up the Grapefruit League, reaching base at a .400 clip, but he started the regular season batting .083 in his first 24 at-bats.

Hairston lost the leadoff job to Melvin Mora by mid-April and didn't reassume that role until September. Quietly, with most of his teammates slumping badly, Hairston led the club in hitting (.291) and on-base average (.355) over the second half of the season.

Mora did just the opposite, starting strong and finishing in a slump. He hit .195 over the second half of the season with a .317 on-base average. Just like last spring, Hargrove said he hopes to use Mora in a super utility role, playing him two to three times a week.

"[Mora's] abilities say he should be able to lead off," Hargrove said.

"Melvin's probably the most accomplished bunter on the team, but you could look at how many times he tried to bunt last year, and you could probably count them on two hands. He certainly got away from his game."

Hairston, who takes pride in his own bunting ability, says he might be best suited for the No. 2 slot. And the numbers seem to support that theory.

Over the past three seasons, he has hit .196 with a .261 on-base average in the leadoff spot. Batting second, he's hit .293 with a .394 OBA.

"I was talking to [Matthews], and it doesn't really matter who leads off, me or him," Hairston said. "We've got two guys on the team that can lead off, and that's a good thing."

At 6 feet 3, Matthews doesn't look like a prototypical leadoff hitter. But he posted a .355 on-base average last season, had 43 walks to Hairston's 34, and stole 15 bases.

"Bobby Bonds was a big power hitter, a leadoff hitter with power," Hargrove said. "I don't know if Gary's the caliber of ballplayer as Bobby was; I think he has as much talent as Bobby did. We think Gary will be able to do it. If Jerry falters, we'll put Gary in that role."

Coming through the minors with the San Diego Padres, Matthews hit mostly in the No. 2 or No. 3 slot. Last year, most of his at-bats with the Orioles came batting third.

Like Hairston, Matthews doesn't mind batting leadoff, so long as that doesn't mean revamping his approach to hitting - an approach that's been molded over nine professional seasons, counting the minors.

"I'm open to it," Matthews said. "My approach is similar to a leadoff guy, and I can see why they'd want to put me at the top of the order. Sometimes you're hesitant to experiment at this point [of a career], but if they understand that and say, `Hey, we just want you to go out and do what you do,' then I'm fine with that."

But for now, Hargrove is hoping it doesn't come to that because that will mean Hairston is doing the job.

"Everybody goes through a growing period," Hargrove said of Hairston's development. "Sometimes they make big steps, sometimes it's little bitty steps, but you've got to allow them room to develop on their own.

"That doesn't mean you don't push them and raise expectations and hold them accountable, but it means you've got to be realistic and understand that everybody develops at their own pace no matter what you do. We're hoping that Jerry has a good spring leading off."

NOTE: The Orioles will have intrasquad scrimmages tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday before they begin Grapefruit League play Thursday against the Florida Marlins.

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