Outfield hits wall with off years

ORIOLES FOCUS

Baseball

A Look Inside

August 08, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Back in April, before the injuries hit and the frustrations mounted, the Orioles thought they could be staring at their outfield of the future.

With Larry Bigbie in left field, Luis Matos in center and Jay Gibbons in right, they had three young players coming off promising 2003 seasons. They had every reason to believe that trio could stay together for years to come.

It hasn't worked that way, of course. For all the talk about the struggles of the Orioles' young pitching staff, the outfield has been just as disappointing.

Gibbons, 27, has been limited to 53 games with injuries and is hitting .223. Matos, 25, hit just .224 before learning he needed season-ending surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right shin. And Bigbie, 26, entered today batting .259.

All told, that trio had combined for 103 RBIs - three more than Gibbons had himself last season.

"With the injuries to Matos and Gibbons, it's hurt us a lot this year," said Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. "We thought they would flourish."

Gibbons, who has been on the disabled list with a torn hip flexor muscle since June 29, should be ready to return this week. And Bigbie still has time to make something special out of his season.

But the Orioles will go back to the drawing board this offseason. Besides adding starting pitching, team officials say one of their top priorities will be a premier outfielder.

Chicago White Sox right fielder Magglio Ordonez figures to top their wish list. Orioles insiders say they're not as focused on Houston Astros center fielder Carlos Beltran, because they think he will either stay in Houston or land with the New York Yankees.

The urgency wouldn't be there if Matos, Gibbons and Bigbie had just done what their numbers suggested they would do this season.

Matos hit .303 in 439 at-bats last season. The stress fracture first showed itself during spring training and was practically healed until he banged the same leg into the Green Monster at Fenway Park making a catch on July 21.

Gibbons hit .277 in 625 at-bats last season, and Bigbie hit .303 in 287 at-bats.

"You never know what's going to happen in this game," Bigbie said. "It's definitely a game that can humble you quick."

But it also works the other way, as Bigbie learned last year.

On Aug. 10, he was hitting .243, showing little signs of progress, but he hit .345 the rest of the season - the third-highest average for any American League player over that stretch.

Unlike Gibbons and Matos, Bigbie has been healthy this season but less productive.

After hitting nine home runs last year, Bigbie had five on May 7, and his eyes got big. Instead of using the whole field, he started trying to pull the ball more to hit more home runs.

"I felt like, hey, maybe I can reach 25 [home runs], and I started getting really pull conscious," Bigbie said. "And I think that's the worst thing that can happen to me."

Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said he would rather see Bigbie spray the ball around the field, hitting for a high average and on-base percentage, so he can use his speed.

Bigbie hit his 11th home run on Friday night, but even more encouraging, he started August with five hits in his first 15 at-bats.

"I still have a month and a half left," Bigbie said, "and I can finish the season really strong."

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