If it's summer, Orsulak adds the sizzle


He is as constant as the season in which he hits -- cool in the spring, but hot in the summer.

Every year, Joe Orsulak emerges from spring training with a cold bat and the deceiving appearance that he will never be a full-time player with the Orioles.

And, every year, along about June, the outfielder starts to splatter hits all over ballparks, and the manager can't get him out of the lineup.

"He's the same old 'Slak this season," manager Johnny Oates said. "There isn't anything new you can say about him."

With the Orioles embroiled in a sizzling pennant race, Orsulak again is a key figure, playing virtually every day in right field and hitting aton.

"I can't explain why it happens like this," Orsulak said. "I've had some fast starts, too, but not lately. Early in the year, I have a bad allergy. Maybe that's it."

Oates is a manager who goes with the torrid hand (or more specifically, bat).

"The name of the game is to use guys who are hitting," he said. "When 'Slak got off slowly, other people played. Chito [Martinez] was hot when we went to the West Coast. Then he cooled off, and 'Slak got in there. He's still there because he hasn't stopped hitting."

On June 9, five days after the West Coast trip ended, Orsulak was batting .218. Two months later, he has climbed to .313 and joined the league leaders.

"A manager has to play the guys who are hitting. They deserve it," said Orsulak, a working man's player who doesn't mind getting his uniform dirty. "If you're winning, you can play a more set lineup."

Orsulak classified himself as "lucky, I guess" that he has warmed up with the weather to finish in the .270-.280 range in all of his four years as an Oriole.

"You only get so many opportunities in a season. I'll tell you, I'd love to hit .350 in April. But if I did, I'd probably hit .220 in July."

Not a home-run hitter (11 is his major-league high in a season), Orsulak said he would probably have four homers instead of two if the team were still at Memorial Stadium.

"But it's nine feet deeper here, and the wall's higher," he said.

The wall is dictating how he plays defensively, said Orsulak, the diving specialist of the team.

"You can't outsmart the wall," he said. "You can't take the ball right off there. You have to back up and take the big hop, then throw where you're supposed to.

"The ball comes down at an angle, and then there's a rubber warning track that makes it bounce way up. Why they ever put a rubber track out there, I'll never know. It's like playing it off turf."

Orsulak may not be a picturesque outfielder, but he has been effective. He led the majors with 22 assists last season, the highest total of any outfielder in the big leagues since 1985, and committed only one error in 143 games.

He won't probably approach that assist total this season, but opposing runners aren't quite as eager to take liberties with his arm.

"The real fast guys still go," he said. "But the guys with average speed aren't taking the chances they might have last year. That [22 assists] was just one of those things. I usually get about 10 a year.

"I was lucky. I got a lot of close ones, getting runners by a half step."

Orsulak is a superstitious sort who doesn't like to talk about himself, especially not when he is going well. A .380 average in the last month is going well.

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