O's hope 3-4-5 is combination to unlock runs from new trio

Tejada, Palmeiro, Lopez rate with heart of any order

March 04, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When the Orioles were assembling the new heart of their batting order this past winter - by adding Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez - it was tough to find anyone more excited than Jay Gibbons.

And this was a guy who knew his own place in the lineup was falling fast.

"It's like instant offense," Gibbons said. "All it's going to do is help the rest of our lineup. It'll be a lot easier for all of us."

First-year Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli has been fairly coy during spring training about how his lineup will look this season. He has few certainties, he says, except for slots 3, 4 and 5 - Tejada, Palmeiro and Lopez.

Gibbons probably will hit sixth, and by the time he heads to the plate today in the Grapefruit League opener against the World Series champion Florida Marlins, the Orioles will have already unveiled The Three Bruisers.

Tejada, Palmeiro and Lopez combined for 108 home runs and 327 RBIs last season. Looking around baseball, it's tough to find a more potent 3-4-5 combination.

The New York Yankees have Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield - a group that combined for 127 home runs and 357 RBIs last season.

The St. Louis Cardinals have Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen (110 home runs, 317 RBIs).

Besides the Yankees and Cardinals, no other team has a 3-4-5 combination that produced more home runs or more RBIs last year than the Orioles' trio did.

"I think, offensively, they're a good club," Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "All three of them bring an offensive presence. We've seen enough of Tejada and Palmeiro [in the American League] to know how good they are.

"Miguel is always tough on us, and Raffy is always tough on us. And with Javy there, too, they've definitely upgraded themselves."

A year ago, the Orioles went into the season with a 3-4-5 combination of David Segui, Jeff Conine and Gibbons.

Gibbons spent most of the year hitting fifth, but on Aug. 31, the Orioles traded cleanup hitter Conine to the Marlins, thrusting Gibbons into the No. 4 hole.

In September, Gibbons hit .245 with two home runs and 10 RBIs and had a .278 on-base percentage.

"The second Niner left, it affected the whole lineup," Gibbons said. "It was definitely tough to get a pitch over the plate. I never really experienced anything like that. They just threw me [pitches away in the strike zone] for a month straight. It was pretty frustrating."

The Orioles ranked 10th in the American League last season with 743 runs scored, and how much they improve upon that number will depend heavily on whether Tejada, Palmeiro and Lopez produce the way they did a year ago.

For Tejada, one would think this season could be even better. He was named the American League's Most Valuable Player in 2002 when he hit .308 with 34 home runs and 131 RBIs.

Those numbers dropped to .278, 27 and 106 last season.

"I never batted with two players like [Palmeiro and Lopez] behind me before," Tejada said. "That's going to be great. We're going to be great three, four and five.

"And six because Gibbons is a great hitter, too. And seven, [Larry] Bigbie. That's a great lineup."

In 2001, Tejada hit cleanup in a very solid Oakland Athletics lineup, between Giambi and Eric Chavez, but this is the first time he's had two sluggers like Palmeiro and Lopez batting behind him. A year ago, he hit third for Oakland ahead of Chavez and Erubiel Durazo.

For Palmeiro, the question has never been about consistency. He has gone nine straight seasons with at least 38 home runs, but skeptics wonder if he'll hit the wall this season at age 39.

His on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) dropped from .962 in 2002 to .867 last season, which is never a good sign, but he could have better protection behind him this season with Lopez and Gibbons.

Last year, Palmeiro hit cleanup in the Texas Rangers' lineup, behind Rodriguez. The Rangers started with an aging Juan Gonzalez hitting fifth and then replaced him with a rookie, Mark Teixeira.

"For the most part, I've always been in the middle of a good lineup in my career," Palmeiro said. "This has the potential to be as good as any."

Lopez also had a lot of talent around him with the Atlanta Braves. He hit mostly sixth in their lineup last season, behind Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones.

Last year could have been an aberration for Lopez. He hit 11 home runs in 2002 and came back to hit 43 last season. But he reported to camp in the same top physical shape he was in last season, and he likes what he's seen so far from the Orioles' other hitters.

"Looking at our whole lineup, really, it's pretty impressive," Lopez said. "Just looking at [Luis] Matos hitting like eighth. It really has a lot to say about this lineup because Matos is a tremendous hitter."

Matos, Bigbie and Gibbons are all relatively inexperienced hitters who figure to benefit with the improvements the Orioles have made to their lineup. For this reason, Gibbons has no problem whatsoever moving down in the order.

"Sixth doesn't matter," he said. "Six this year is a lot better than five last year."

Orioles today

Opponent: Florida Marlins in exhibition season opener

Site: Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Stadium

Time: 1:05 p.m.

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

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