As heat builds, icicles still cling to Sosa's bat

June 07, 2005|By Peter Schmuck

PITTSBURGH - Sammy Sosa is back in familiar surroundings ... back in one of the National League ballparks where he reigned not very long ago as one of the most dangerous hitters in the history of baseball.

Except that something is horribly wrong.

The old Sammy Sosa would be treating the mediocre Pittsburgh Pirates dismissively, with that certain swagger and maybe a few of his signature chest taps. Now, it's the other way around.

How often have you seen anybody intentionally walked in front of Sammy with a close game hanging in the balance?

How often have you seen it happen two times in row? Maybe never ... until the Pirates walked sizzling Miguel Tejada in back-to-back at-bats to get to Sosa.

"That's a move you've got to make," said Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. "It sets up the double play."

Yeah, right.

That's only a move you've got to make when one of baseball's greatest sluggers has been struggling to find his stroke for the first two months of the season. One big swing and the game is over, but obviously Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon wasn't particularly worried about that.

Tejada is one of the hottest hitters in the major leagues, and he proved it again with a mammoth home run in the first inning. Sosa entered the game hitting just .200 with runners in scoring position and ended it batting .195 in those situations after striking out and flying out after the two intentional passes.

"I've played against him [McClendon] before," Sosa said. "When he has a chance to do that, he's going to do that."

Which is true. McClendon is a big believer in the intentional pass, but not usually when the cleanup hitter - the guy with 579 career home runs - is standing menacingly in the on-deck circle.

"Right now, I'm not the best that I can be," Sosa said with only a hint of frustration in his voice, "and that's why he can do that."

No need to get all broken up about it. The Orioles scratched out a 4-3 victory in the first game of their first road series against a National League team. They did it with only four of their original position starters in the lineup. They have won five of the first eight games on the longest road trip of the year.

Clearly, it is a tough time to be Sammy Sosa. He has always been a notoriously slow starter, but that syndrome usually has resolved itself by this time of year.

Maybe the foot infection that knocked him out for a couple of weeks has delayed his summer awakening. Maybe the indignity of being treated like the weak link in the Orioles' lineup will steel his determination.

"Sometimes, a situation like that will really get a player going," Mazzilli said.

Perhaps so, but Sosa wasn't talking especially tough after the game. He admittedly has had a hard time adjusting to a new set of pitchers in a new league, so he isn't popping off about payback just yet.

"I don't want to say that," he said. "Sometimes, you're not swinging the bat, but anything can happen. They are just making some good pitches on me right now. Good pitches are going to get out good hitters."

The phones are ringing off the hook in Talkshowland, that nasty place that's just across the tracks from Jimmyville. Frustrated fans wonder if it's time to drop Sosa down in the lineup, as if in the current injury environment Mazzilli has a whole lot of better options.

Maybe it is, but keep one thing in mind. There was a ton of sentiment for dropping Rafael Palmeiro down in the order ... or out of it altogether when he was struggling to get untracked in April. Now, he's on the rebound and he's one of the major reasons that the banged-up Orioles are still hanging tough at the top of the AL East standings.

Former major league manager Gene Mauch - who was a pretty smart guy - used to say the same thing whenever he was asked about a strong performance from a supposedly over-the-hill superstar.

"I'm never surprised," he would say, "when special people do special things."

So don't be surprised if Sosa suddenly wakes up at the plate and helps carry the Orioles through the summer.

Stranger things have happened.

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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