Sosa's failing power may test O's patience

July 09, 2005|By John Eisenberg

THE ORIOLES are half a season into their Sammy Sosa experiment, and the best thing you can say is nothing is turning out as expected.

The egomaniacal star who would demand to ride in limos and insist he's bigger than the team? He's not here. Sosa has played team ball, kept a low profile and blended in well.

The first-ballot Hall of Famer who might not want to work hard or take instruction? He's not here, either. Sosa has been a model worker bee; he comes to the ballpark early, takes extra hitting and heeds the wise counsel of hitting coach Terry Crowley.

The diva with a weak glove? Sosa hustles and has played better than expected in the outfield, although he has had his moments.

But while Sosa has scored high marks on behavioral issues, he was brought here to hit home runs, and he has been a sad imitation of the slugger who racked up colossal numbers with the Cubs.

His 2005 started slowly and has gotten worse; heading into last night, he was hitting .230 with nine home runs and had hit just .195 with four home runs in his past 36 games, looking increasingly lost.

Why the drop-off? It could be the change in leagues, seeing new pitchers. It could be age (36) catching up with him. He was called to testify before Congress about steroids and named in Jose Canseco's book, raising larger doubts he says are unfair.

Whatever ails him, the Orioles are doing all they can to help him overcome it. Manager Lee Mazzilli has made several moves to try to get him going, dropping him in the order and then resting him for a few days. Last night, Mazzilli said Sosa probably would be a designated hitter from now on.

It was the sound of a team willing to try anything to get more production from a major puzzle piece.

"He feels he's going to be stronger at DH," Mazzilli said. "We had a conversation about it. We were both in agreement."

Sosa had an RBI single in Thursday night's win and walked and singled in his first two at-bats last night, so he could be starting to rise from the horrifying bottom he clearly scraped recently, when he went 0-for-20 and could barely get a ball out of the infield.

"I look for big things from him in the second half. I really do," Mazzilli said.

But his RBI was his first since June 19, and a few singles up the middle do not suggest he has turned things around. Sal Fasano still has a higher batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.

What happens if the move to DH doesn't work?

That's the question the Orioles would prefer not to answer.

They're being especially patient with him and respectful of him (anyone else who goes through a 4-for-47 slump would be on the bench or in the minors, not batting fifth, as he was last night) because they can't trade for another bat with the potential to explode so furiously.

Given what Sosa can do, there's no point in giving up and benching him until you're certain it's a lost cause, and the Orioles can't say that yet, not nearly.

Having brought Sosa here, they need to stick with him and hope he gets better.

But only up to a point.

They also need to have the organizational guts to pull the plug on the experiment if Sosa continues to flail miserably, hitting singles at best.

Bench him? Hey, if they're still contending for a playoff spot at the end of the month, they would be severely compromising their chances if they continued to tolerate such diminished power production from a prime spot in their batting order.

It would make sense for them to trade for another right-handed hitting outfielder/DH and give that player the at-bats. Colorado's Preston Wilson (.258, 14 homers, 45 RBIs entering last night) is on the trading block and wouldn't be outrageously expensive.

Yes, such a move would be insulting to a future Hall of Famer. But this is the major leagues. The goal is to win, and Sosa has been shown nothing but respect. You should do what you have to do.

The Orioles surely will maintain the status quo for at least a few more weeks, hoping that Sosa heats up and they don't have to deal with such a situation. They would much rather have him finish the season in respectable form and then make a call on him when he is a free agent next winter.

But as they continue to do everything they can to get him going, they should start steeling themselves for the possibility of having to make a harder call much sooner.

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