Hitting near the bottom of the Orioles' batting order for most of his first two full seasons in Baltimore, Chris Hoiles proved that he could hit home runs. Bases-empty home runs.
In fact, Hoiles set a major-league record last year for the fewest number of RBI (40) by a player with 20 or more home runs. It was a reputation Hoiles wanted to erase.
"Obviously I know that there were a lot of missed opportunities," Hoiles said before last night's game at Camden Yards.
After continuing the trend during the first two months of this season, Hoiles is starting to gain a new reputation: a player who gets big hits -- even home runs -- with runners in scoring position.
Hoiles had another big hit in Monday night's rain-delayed 6-5 victory over the Kansas City Royals. His three-run home run in the third inning helped stake the Orioles and Jamie Moyer to a 4-0 lead.
"He has been the key ingredient to our success this year," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said early yesterday. "He has made up for all those solo home runs he hit last year. Every time he hits a home run this year it seems like there are one or two guys on base. Those are the kind that I like."
It was Hoiles' 19th home run of the season, one short of the career high he set last year and the team record for catchers he shares with Gus Triandos. More significantly, it was his fourth of the past five and fifth of the past nine with runners on base.
Is Hoiles starting a new, more productive trend? Or is moving up to fifth or sixth in the order given the 28-year-old catcher more chances to drive in runs?
"I think moving up in the order has helped," said Hoiles, who added a single in four at-bats Monday to raise his average to a season-high .305. "But the biggest thing is being more selective. Last year, pitchers were making me hit their pitch. Now I'm trying to wait and hit a pitch I want to hit."
After hitting only .205 with runners in scoring position last year, Hoiles is at .297 this year. Of his 20 home runs last season, only three came with runners in scoring position. He already has hit five in that situation this year, including his third career grand slam.
What started out last month as a decent hitting streak has turned into a monsterish stretch for Hoiles, similar to the one he put together last season before having his year interrupted for 51 games by a suspect pitch from former New York Yankee Tim Leary that broke his right wrist.
"If I had to compare the way I was hitting before I got hurt and the way I'm hitting now, they're very similar," said Hoiles, who had hit 12 home runs in his past 25 games and driven in 34 runs in his past 35 games before last night. "I'm just trying to hit my pitch, whether it's the first pitch or the fifth pitch."
It has helped propel Hoiles into the forefront among baseball's best power-hitting catchers. Only Mickey Tettleton, the American League's home run leader, has hit more and the former Oriole no longer catches full-time for the Detroit Tigers.
Hoiles came into last night's game tied with Rick Wilkins of the Chicago Cubs and Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers among major-league catchers. He leads the Orioles in RBI and has driven in 10 more runs than he did last season.
"Before yesterday [Monday], I was starting to rush up there, trying to hit the ball before it reached home plate," said Hoiles. "And if guys were throwing sliders or some other off-speed pitches, I was way out in front. I've just tried to shorten my swing, to get my arms out in front of me."
Something else Hoiles has tried to do is put the disappointment of not making this year's All-Star team out of his mind. While he has picked up right where he left off -- going four of 10 since the break before last night -- Hoiles says there are more important things to think about.
"It was disappointing, but there were other guys who were deserving that didn't make it either," he said. "My main thing is to help this team. I would rather see this team win the division and go to the World Series than play in the All-Star Game. That's my motivation."