O's Win With Hole in Middle

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By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 7, 2005

PITTSBURGH, June 6 -- In the workout room of the roomy visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park, Sammy Sosa, only minutes after the Baltimore Orioles' 4-3 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates, lifted dumbbells, alternating between arms in rapid succession. Each pump seemed to relieve a bit of frustration. Each lift likely was meant to build up his strength, once almighty, but now hardly recognizable.

At one point this season Sosa's mere presence in the lineup was enough to scare managers and pitchers into pitching to Miguel Tejada, no matter how well the shortstop was swinging the bat. It was not so long ago that Sosa hit the longest home run in the history of PNC Park, a 484-foot blast to center field in 2002 that still has people in awe.

Sosa's stock has certainly fallen since. Twice the Pirates walked Tejada with first base open to pitch to Sosa. And twice Sosa failed to drive in a run. It was an embarrassing night for the right fielder.

The mere thought that any manager would want to pitch to Sosa is an indication the future Hall of Famer is not considered the slugger he once was. Sosa is batting .190 with runners in scoring position and is just 8 for 49 since returning to the lineup from a foot ailment. The Orioles, now four games ahead in the American League East, are winning despite him, really.

"I played against [Pirates Manager Lloyd McClendon] before," Sosa said. "When he has a chance to do that, he'll do that. Right now, I'm not the best I can be."

Without a designated hitter while playing in a National League park, Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli benched Jay Gibbons, one of his most productive batters. Mazzilli has repeatedly stated he believes interleague play puts American League teams at a disadvantage because it takes away one of the best hitters from the lineup. Perhaps it would help Baltimore in interleague play if Sosa heats up.

"He doesn't have [579] home runs for nothing," Mazzilli said. "Sometimes a situation like that can get a player going. I think Sammy is a guy that something like that will make him take it up a notch."

Baltimore scored its first runs of the game on a two-run home run by Tejada, his 16th homer of the season. The Orioles added another on a solo home run by B.J. Surhoff in the fourth that landed in the last row of the right field bleachers. Surhoff's recent surge has been impressive. In his last 10 games, he is batting .415. The winning run scored on a sacrifice fly by Rafael Palmeiro in the eighth.

Sosa is not the only Orioles player struggling to regain his form. It remains perhaps the season's biggest mystery why Steve Kline, once known to dominate southpaws, can no longer retire lefties. With a one-run lead, Kline was brought into the game in the seventh inning and retired his first two hitters, both right-handers. The next two hitters in the Pirates' lineup were lefties.

Prior to this season, left-handers hit .215 against Kline, including .143 last season. Already this season, Kline has given up more hits to lefties (14) than he did all of last season (12).

First up was Matt Lawton, who perhaps is hotter than any other hitter in baseball right now. In the past three games, Lawton is 8 for 9 and has reached base in 13 of his past 14 plate appearances. In his at-bat against Kline in the seventh, Lawton sent a ball that just cleared the right field wall to tie the game at 3.

"I can't get anybody out," Kline said. "It's just my luck. I can't buy anything. If I was on 'Wheel of Fortune,' I couldn't even buy a vowel. I'm still throwing the same slop, they're just hitting it."

After the home run Kline knelt on one knee on the mound, both hands on top of his head.

"At that point, I wanted to go nuts," he said.

Kline allowed a single to the next batter, also a lefty. Lefties are now hitting .326 (14 for 43) against him this season.

They share large amounts of frustration, Sosa and Kline, the two Orioles searching for answers. While Kline said he is unsure what has gone wrong, Sosa said he has no problems at the plate.

"I'm fine," Sosa said. "They're pitching me great. Good pitching stops good hitters."

It may take another 484-foot home run before Sosa gets any respect again.


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