Trying to get back into swing of it

Through the first week of the season, O's Melvin Mora is batting just .115.

April 12, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Melvin Mora's eyes widened and his jaw nearly hit the clubhouse floor. The numbers couldn't be right. No way he was 1-for-21 at the plate to begin the season. There must be a mistake.

"That's what I have?" the Orioles third baseman asked a visitor before a weekend game at Yankee Stadium.

Assured that the figures were correct, Mora replied: "Wow. I thought I was 1-for-40."

It only seemed that bad.

A .340 hitter last year, the highest average of his major league career, Mora has stumbled out of the gate in 2005. If he has made solid contact, it has been with the ground.

Two hits in Sunday's game in New York raised his average to .115 heading into tonight's series opener against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field. He hasn't regained his previous form, but at least his statistics aren't quite as scrawny.

Mora said he's uncomfortable at the plate, guessing wrong when trying to anticipate pitches and chasing them anyway. He struck out twice and got one ball out of the infield in six chances during Friday's 12-5 win over the Yankees, and struck out two more times the next day while going 0-for-4 with a sacrifice bunt.

"I'll be honest. I won't lie to you. I feel like I'm late with the fastball and in front with the breaking pitches. I'm not in the middle," he said. "How are you going to fix it? Keep working. I need to get myself ready because nobody wants to be like that.

"I'm not making excuses, but if I tell you that I'm feeling good, I'm lying to you. I'm just thinking too much at the plate about hitting the ball. I don't feel comfortable mentally or physically. Any player in baseball can tell you exactly what I say, because everybody's been through it. They know. But there's a long way to go."

Most of the Orioles' regulars were cold after leaving spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but Mora has been especially slow to heat up. He was hitless in 19 straight at-bats before sending a line drive up the middle that struck Yankees pitcher Carl Pavano above the right ear during the third inning of Sunday's 7-2 win.

Mora also singled in the fifth inning off reliever Tanyon Sturtze, and he scored twice in his most productive game of the season. His other hit, an RBI double, came on Opening Day.

"People say, `Oh, it's OK. It's early.' No. I don't care if it's early," Mora said.

"I'm trying too hard. I'm trying to do too much. I need to slow down and try to look for my pitch. If they throw it and I miss it, well, next time. Now, it's like I'm looking for something and I swing at something else. I'm looking for a fastball and I swing at a breaking pitch. I'm looking for a breaking pitch and I swing at the fastball late. I need to stay in the middle and stay on top of everything."

Perhaps his difficulties can be tied to a Jeff Suppan pitch that nailed him in the right hand during the last exhibition game in Florida. He said the hand remains sore, but it doesn't affect his swing.

He's more inclined to trace his slump, or at least part of it, to a prolonged bout with the flu in spring training that zapped the strength from his body.

"It's not an excuse for me not hitting," he said. "I know it affected me because I feel a little bit weak, but everything's going to be fine."

Mora was encouraged by a good at-bat against Oakland left-hander Barry Zito on Opening Day. He remembers thinking, "I've still got it," only to find out how quickly it can be lost.

"The next three or four games, I don't know if it's good pitchers. ... I need to give credit to those guys, too," he said. "The guys from the Oakland A's, they throw good."

He's not inclined to credit Yankees pitcher Jaret Wright, who retired Mora twice and nailed him with a pitch. The Orioles knocked out Wright in the fifth, reaching him for six runs and eight hits.

"I think I should have gotten that guy because he was throwing pitches right down the middle, and I didn't get a hit," Mora said. "Randy Johnson was throwing right there, too, and I didn't get a hit, so there's something wrong with me."

Mora said he doesn't believe he's being pitched differently since ranking second in the American League in hitting last season. It's the results that have changed.

"They throw the ball right there, but I look for something and I swing at the other thing," he said. "I'm not thinking about what I'm doing at the plate. I need to get myself ready mentally first, then go to home plate."

Sometimes, it's wise to go to an All-Star shortstop.

Mora conferred with Derek Jeter before Saturday's game. The advice given was simple, yet reassuring.

"He's a strong man in baseball mentally," Mora said. "He just said, `Hey, you'll be fine.' I have a lot of people around me who are positive, and they talk to me a lot."

Manager Lee Mazzilli never sounded concerned about Mora's slow start when asked about it twice in New York. To him, it's a non-issue.

"He's a little overanxious at times, that's all," Mazzilli said.

The American League's Silver Slugger winner at third base, Mora was forced to bat second this year because no one else stepped up in spring training to give Mazzilli another option. Mora batted .354 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 58 starts as the No. 2 hitter last year and .331 with 14 homers and 61 RBIs in 80 starts as the No. 3.

"Now when you hit second, it's kind of like everything changes," he said. "If you're hitting second and a man is on second base, your swing is automatically going to change. If you try to hit the ball to left field, you're going to look selfish. So my swing is going to change, whether I like it or not."

Said Mazzilli: "I told him already, `When you hit second, I'm not asking you to do anything different. You're not there to give yourself up and move the runners over.' There's a time and place for that, but I just told him to be who he was, the type of hitter he is. No more, no less."

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