Leading the league and O's, Roberts is season's biggest hit

April 17, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

IF HIS NAME were Griffey or Ichiro, Bonds or Pujols, you might see his face on the next cover of Sports Illustrated, along with the most tantalizing and aggrandizing headline in all of baseball:

Yankee Killer.

For now, the most explosive offensive player in baseball so far this young season will simply accept the ear-ringing cheers of Orioles fans.

Last night, courtesy of Brian Roberts, the numerous and infamous interloping Yankees fans at Camden Yards were actually shouted down by the hometown crowd.

Talk about the power and the glory!

"I haven't seen our fans like this since Cal's last year. It's been fun for us. I don't blame them. We haven't done what we should have done the past few seasons, but this is the best place to play," Roberts said after his three-run homer jolted the Orioles to a stunning, 7-6 comeback win.

In baseball, in which you can continually and legitimately claim to see something new every day, Roberts delivered another "Oh, my!" moment, further punctuating an April that has been happy and potent and promising for him - and the Orioles.

In the seventh inning, the Orioles were mounting a comeback but still trailing 6-4 when Roberts stepped to the plate.

With two outs and Luis Matos and Jay Gibbons on base, the switch-hitting Roberts turned around to bat left-handed against Yankees reliever Tom Gordon.

His mind-set all along this season has been aggressive. And in a lineup stoked with Melvin Mora, Miguel Tejada, Sammy Sosa and Javy Lopez, Roberts is the recipient of largesse on the part of opposing pitchers, desperate to find a soft spot or two in the Orioles' order.

Roberts, dialed in to take full advantage, made the Yankees pay, this time by belting home run No. 5 on the season. He took a two-out, 2-1 cutter and cranked it hard and high over the right-field wall.

"If you don't want to be up in those situations, you might as well go home," he said.

If the Orioles had known that trading Roberts' friend and fellow second baseman, Jerry Hairston, would have unleashed such a torrent, they might have done it a lot sooner.

Who knew that without Hairston around Roberts would have a break-out season that has catapulted him past all the big names and bigger boys of the big leagues?

OK, how's this for strange coincidence: Derek Jeter was among those early believers who saw big things coming from Roberts.

A year ago, in a game against the Yankees, Roberts stood on second base while the Yankees changed pitchers. Killing time, Jeter idled over to offer Roberts some advice.

"He told me, `You can hit .320 in this league.' He was very encouraging," Roberts said.

Encouraging? Maybe even in his generous observation of Roberts' ability, Jeter sold the Orioles second-baseman a little short. Did Jeter really mean to say that Roberts could hit .420?

Even that ridiculously lofty number would have sold Roberts short. Jeter could have said Roberts could hit .444. That's what he's batting after yesterday's assault on the Yankees.

"To battle back against that team isn't something we've done," said Roberts, adding, "We've got to beat the Yankees and the Red Sox for us to get where we want to go."

A year after Jeter told Roberts to let it rip, Roberts has torn into the 2005 season with an aggressive vengeance that has put him squarely on top of nearly every offensive category in the American League.

Roberts leads the league in average, hits (20), runs (14), multi-hit games (seven) total bases (42), triples (three), on-base average (.528), slugging percentage (.933) extra-base hits (nine) stolen bases (five) and RBIs (14).

And, as if that surreal cavalcade of stats wasn't enough, Roberts is second in the AL in homers and already has tied his career high ... after 11 games.

Even Roberts is hard-pressed to explain the power.

"People say when you're going good that the ball must look like a beach ball or something, but it's not that easy. I'm just relaxed and confident," he said.

With the trade of Hairston to the Cubs for Sosa, two important things happened for Roberts. He found himself at the top of a lineup that favors him getting more good pitches to hit. This suits an aggressive mind-set that Roberts was encouraged to adopt by hitting coach Terry Crowley.

In addition, Roberts has finally found himself free, no longer having to look over his shoulder and wonder if second base and the leadoff job were his.

"Jerry and I used to say that the situation was going to make us both stronger people and stronger players, that it will help us down the road," Roberts said.

Stronger and better, sure. But leading the AL in almost every significant offensive category? Single-handedly beating the Yankees?

Even in his infinite wisdom, Jeter could not have predicted this.

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