PITTSBURGH—Derrek Lee, who had been an Oriole for all of 31/2 months, summoned his struggling teammates together and delivered a message that was a mix of encouragement, insight and advice.
With the Orioles in the midst of an eight-game losing streak in mid-April, Lee urged his teammates to relax, acknowledged that he needed to start doing his part and concluded there was too much talent in the home clubhouse for the lineup to be performing as it was.
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Lee has fit in perfectly in an Orioles clubhouse long in need of more professionalism and leadership, and his defense has been a constant. But his offense hasn't come around, prompting further questions about how much he has left at age 35 after having played for 14-plus big league seasons.
"I feel like I need to be better," Lee said before Tuesday's game, in which he went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts in the Orioles' 9-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I'm getting some hits, but I'm still not driving the ball like I want to. So I'm just going to continue to work. It's nice to get the base hits, but I guess I'm kind of looking at the big picture."
The big picture is that Lee signed a one-year, $7.25 million contract in January because the Orioles not only offered him good money, but they also represented his best opportunity to regain some of the value he lost after he batted just .260 with 19 homers and 80 RBIs while playing the entire 2010 season with a torn ligament in his right thumb.
In his first comments after signing with the Orioles, Lee, a two-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove winner, acknowledged that he had a chip on his shoulder because he felt that some people around the game had forgotten he was just one season removed from hitting .306 with 35 homers and 111 RBIs for the Chicago Cubs.
The extra motivation, however, hasn't produced the results Lee desired. He's batting just .238 with four homers and 18 RBIs in 54 games. Only third baseman Mark Reynolds (.231) has a worse batting average among Orioles regulars. Lee is also eighth on the team in homers and ninth in RBIs, and he's 6-for-47 (.128) with two doubles, 11 RBIs and 16 strikeouts with runners in scoring position, a telling statistic for somebody who has hit in the middle of the Orioles' order all season.
"It's still there," Lee said when asked whether the chip on his shoulder has gotten bigger with the increased attention on his offensive struggles. "I still want to have a very good season. I want to prove that I can still play. Like I said, I'm disappointed that I didn't get off to a better start. But I feel like I have time to save it. I really want to be here for this team the last 31/2 months, finish strong and play like I know I can."
Because of his one-year contract, Lee would be a candidate to be moved before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, but he would need to find his stroke first to become an attractive option for contenders. Lee had appeared to break from his early-season struggles, going 11-for-18 with three doubles during a four-game stretch that started with a 5-for-5 performance last Friday in Washington. However, he went hitless in the last two games of the Pirates series and is hitless in his past 10 at-bats with three strikeouts and a double-play ball.
It's no wonder that even when he was in the midst of his hot streak, Lee cautioned that he still had a long way to go and lamented the fact that he wasn't producing as many extra-base hits as he would have liked.
"I just wasn't swinging the bat well. It's pretty much as simple as that," he said. "There were days I felt like I was getting close, and then the next day, I'd take a step back. I just couldn't put my swing together. I don't think it was any more than that. I tried not to get frustrated. I was disappointed in myself. I think frustration would kind of throw off the process. You know what you're capable of doing, so when you're not doing it, it [stinks], it's disappointing. But I was probably trying to overdo it just to catch up. So I really just tried to get back to the basics, take baby steps and start swinging the bat like I know I can."
Lee has been asked regularly about the reasons for his struggles. He didn't get many at-bats in spring training while recovering from thumb surgery, but he noted that he has had plenty of time to catch up. He is in the American League for the first time and facing pitchers he has barely seen. It's somewhat of a challenge, Lee acknowledges, but you don't have 1,894 career hits and a .281 lifetime batting average without being able to make adjustments.
If there was one thing that frustrated him most, it was the left oblique injury he suffered last month, forcing him to go on the disabled list for three weeks.
Lee returned to play five games before he went on the bereavement list after the death of his grandfather, Leon Lee.
"He had a huge impact on me," said Lee, who went 0-for-12 upon his return. "He was my biggest supporter. I don't think that he had ever missed one of my games. He watched every single game on TV. He's just one of those guys who loved baseball, and all of his sons played."
Through it all, Lee's teammates say the veteran's demeanor hasn't changed, and if he's been dealing with frustration, he has handled it internally.
"Believe me, you don't do what Derrek's done throughout the course of his career and not have a real smoldering fire down there," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I walked down to him the other day, and I said, 'How are you doing?' And he said: 'OK, not happy. Nothing two or three hits and an Orioles win wouldn't help.' He affects our team every day regardless of what he's doing.
"He's a very easy guy to defend as a manager. I know every night that he's going to be as good as he's capable of being. He's a winning player. It's fun to see him every day walking into your locker room."
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who remembers watching Lee on television while he was in junior high, said that regardless of the first baseman's offensive stats, Lee has helped him learn how to go about becoming a team leader the "right way."
"He's a step above a leader around here, especially for a guy like me, a young African-American," Jones said. "You can tell when he's not around. You can feel his presence lost, not just because his play on the field, but because of his personality and demeanor."
Orioles reliever Jim Johnson said players go to Lee all the time with questions or issues.
"A lot of things are run through him," Johnson said. "If there was ever a question, you don't have to go to Buck. It's nothing like that. He's got the time, he's been through it all. I love his defense, I like the way his bat has been coming along, too. He's a quality player and a quality person. He's perfect for this clubhouse."
Despite his struggles, Lee focused on the positives in his first year as an Oriole. He said it is clear that Showalter has the organization headed in the right direction, and he praised the amount of young talent the organization has, saying some of the players don't realize how good they can be and are capable of producing even more.
However, things certainly would be a lot more enjoyable if he mixed in a few more hits.
"It just wasn't a good first couple of months for me," Lee said. "Hopefully, I can have a great final 31/2 months."
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