4 To Fear

Top Of Orioles' Lineup Is Terrorizing Opponents, Making Up For Pitching

April 17, 2009|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -In a little more than a year with the Orioles, center fielder Adam Jones has gotten plenty of opportunities to watch the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. When he compares those lineups with the one he hits in, the brash 23-year-old reaches a quick conclusion.

"I personally think ours is better," Jones said. "I'll put this lineup up against anybody. I think it's one of the best in baseball, but us being in Baltimore, we get no credit. We're cool with that. We'll just go out there and try to run up the scores."

Jones knows one week certainly doesn't make a season, nor does a strong second half such as the one Orioles hitters put together last year. He's basing his opinion not only on past successes, but also on potential ones, specifically from a top of the order that is off to a torrid start to the season.

Brian Roberts, Jones and Nick Markakis - the top three hitters in the lineup - are hitting a combined .393. That trio and cleanup hitter Aubrey Huff have 32 of the Orioles' 54 RBIs and have scored 37 of the team's 56 runs.

There have been offensive contributions from several others, but the top of the order is the biggest reason the Orioles start a four-game series in Boston on Friday with a 6-3 record despite having an ERA of 6.33, the fifth worst in the major leagues.

"We're exactly in the same position Tampa [Bay]was a couple of years ago. We always said that if they ever got the pitching, they would be extremely dangerous because they had such a dynamic offense," catcher Gregg Zaun said. "If we get good pitching, we'll beat a lot of people. These guys know they can hit. I've been on some clubs where you get down three or four runs early in the game and there would be a complete shutdown - game over. But this club, there's never a panic about whether we can hit or score runs."

The Orioles finished in the middle of the American League in most offensive categories in 2008, but they had one of the most productive lineups after the All-Star break, led by Huff and the resurgence of Melvin Mora. That has carried over to this year.

Heading into Thursday, the Orioles ranked first in the majors in on-base percentage (.376), first in the AL in walks (42); second in doubles (24); third in batting average (.290) runs (56) and hits (90); and fourth in slugging percentage (.471).

"I'm real pleased," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "I've always said to [team owner Peter] Angelos and [president of baseball operations] Andy MacPhail that the best way for us to operate is to have a good major league hitter in every spot. Other teams invest all their money in one or two players and have a couple of $100 million players. We have a nice, balanced attack one through nine."

It, of course, begins at the top. Roberts started hitting while representing Team USA in the World Baseball Classic and hasn't stopped, reaching base at least twice in six of the Orioles' nine games. Markakis, just a .247 career hitter in March/April, appears to be more relaxed than ever after his offseason contract extension.

Then there's Jones, whom most Orioles cited as the key to the offense's fast start. His transformation as a hitter, to one who uses both sides of the field and has better plate discipline, has been on display since the spring. Jones' batting in the No. 2 spot has given the Orioles three players at the top of the order who have extra-base-hit power and speed, and allowed Mora (currently on the disabled list), Ty Wigginton and Luke Scott to drop in the order and get more chances with runners in scoring position.

"It seems like every time I've been up this year, guys have been on base," Huff said. "You can see what happens when you got a really nasty pitcher out there, like [A.J.] Burnett or [James] Shields the other day. That's going to happen. Good pitching is always going to beat good hitting, but if we're clicking on all cylinders, we're going to score a lot of runs."

Orioles manager Dave Trembley said that in one of his first discussions with MacPhail about the club, the two talked about patterning the offense after the Yankees' and Red Sox's lineups. Those teams not only beat pitchers up, but they also wear them out in the process, running up pitch counts and looking to force opponents to delve into their bullpens. Only three of nine starters have gotten through six innings against the Orioles this year.

"There is a concerted effort over pitches seen per at-bat and working the count," Trembley said. "The game has changed, especially in our division. We've learned from the Yankees and Boston and Tampa and Minnesota. That's been a very successful formula, and [Crowley] has done a good job of implementing it."

One night this week, Crowley left Rangers Ballpark in Arlington exhausted because from the second he arrived at the park he was inundated with requests from hitters to do extra work in the batting cage or in front of the video monitors.

"I know one thing: This is a young group of players, and nobody wants to lose anymore," Crowley said. "They are determined to do something about it. God-willing, we stay healthy, we're going to swing the bats with anybody all year long."

ORIOLES @RED SOX

Friday, 7:10 p.m.

TV: MASN HD

Radio: 105.7 FM

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