Offense's lack of punch deals blow to O's hopes

Scoring runs, hitting in clutch have been problems this month

July 22, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - If the Orioles can get solid starting pitching, they have a chance to be in the American League pennant race until the end. Or so the conventional thinking behind most baseball midseason prognostications went.

As the Orioles' front office continues its quest to find a front-line starter, the Orioles' offense is trying to find its way out of a confounding slump at the worst possible time - when the Orioles badly need a clutch hit and while trying to stay afloat in the AL East race.

Over the past five games, the Orioles are 4-for-39 (.103) with runners in scoring position and have stranded 36 runners. In three of those games, they have watched the opposition get the winning hit in its last at-bat, after the Orioles had missed several opportunities.

"We are going through a rough spot, but the pitching [against the Orioles] has been pretty good," said outfielder/designated hitter Jay Gibbons. "Good pitching beats good hitting. Isn't that what they say?"

Indeed, it is. After the Minnesota series, in which the Orioles scored eight runs in three games, some players seemed annoyed at the suggestion that the offense is slumping, feeling that it was a slight to how well the opposition pitched. However, the declining numbers were adding up before the Orioles visited the Metrodome.

Beginning July 1, the Orioles, who led the AL in several offensive categories for a good portion of the first half, have scored 61 runs in 16 games. Entering yesterday, only the Angels have scored fewer runs this month than the Orioles in the AL. The Orioles have scored fewer than four runs nine times in July and more than six just twice, including once in a loss to the Yankees.

It coincides with a 10-game stretch in which Orioles starters have posted a 3.14 ERA, but the team, ailing from a lack of clutch hitting, has won just five of those games.

"I think, offensively, you wouldn't think that would be a concern on this ballclub," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Sometimes, you just go through a stretch like that. I am not concerned about it. It's not like we're searching for guys. The guys are there that have done it the whole year. Sometimes you just go through a period where it just doesn't happen."

The Orioles believe it's just a matter of time before they break out, and they are in the right place for that to happen. The Orioles start a three-game series tonight at Tropicana Field against the Devil Rays, whose pitching staff has the worst ERA in the league.

"Hopefully," Gibbons said, "we'll score 10 a game this weekend."

Added Brian Roberts: "We have to do a better job."

In his past 31 games, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro is hitting .341 with nine homers and 22 RBIs, but his hot bat hasn't always been contagious.

Roberts, perhaps the AL Most Valuable Player in the first half, still leads the league in hitting, but he is hitting .242 this month and has an on-base percentage of .282. His on-base percentages in the previous two months were .431 and .400, respectively.

An important hitter at the bottom of the order, Luis Matos hit .319 with 12 RBIs in 69 April at-bats. In three months and 119 at-bats since - Matos missed more than a month with a broken finger - the center fielder has four RBIs and his average has dropped to .271.

And while shortstop Miguel Tejada has raised his average to .323, he has only one homer and four RBIs this month. Several times, Tejada has popped up in the infield with a runner on third and less than two outs, leading to suggestions that the shortstop may have been trying too hard to make up for the 10-game loss of Melvin Mora to a hamstring injury and the struggles of Sammy Sosa.

"It's hard for me to not try too hard," said Tejada, who barely left any runners last year on his way to a league-leading 150 RBIs. "I really want to help the team. I really think I can help the team by being aggressive at that plate. I am going to get hot again and I am going to bring in more RBIs. I don't worry about that."

Mazzilli and executive vice president Jim Beattie feel that the return of catcher Javy Lopez, who may be in the Orioles' lineup on Monday after being out for nearly two months, will help. Still, one club source said there is some sentiment in the front office to acquire a power hitter for the middle of the order.

The source confirmed that the Orioles did contact the Reds about slugger Adam Dunn, but talks pretty much ceased when Cincinnati requested Erik Bedard just as the starting point for a deal.

"I don't know if there is going to be the type of bat you are looking for in the middle of the lineup out there," Beattie said. "Yeah, we'd like to improve offensively. What other alternatives are out there, we are taking a look at those and that's about it."

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