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Warming trend due on offense Hitting coach Down forecasts power surge

DETROIT — DETROIT -- Rick Down literally feels it coming.

As a long-lasting winter abruptly recedes into a short spring, the Orioles' hitting coach is confident that warmer temperatures will mean increased production from a lineup that has played second billing to the club's pitching.

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"I definitely think weather plays a role," Down said. "Look at what happened in Chicago early on. Now they're hitting more as the weather improves. If you're a hitter, it's a factor. Even though you might say it doesn't affect you, it does simply because you're giving it thought."

The Orioles have been chased by cold or wet conditions for most of the season. Only since fleeing to the West Coast two weeks ago have they found moderate temperatures.

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The pitching-dominant Orioles are batting .279 with 279 runs scored and 62 home runs. The batting average represents a five-point gain over last season but the power and run production are noticeably down from their 1996 historic highs.

After 49 games, they are on a pace for 205 homers and 922 runs scored, a drop-off from last year's major-league record 257 home runs and franchise-best 949 runs.

Coincidentally, since Down stepped in as interim manager for two games last weekend in Cleveland, the Orioles have stepped up offensively, scoring 40 runs in their past five games.

The Orioles remain an above-average but not overwhelming offensive club. They began the final series of their seven-game road trip tied for sixth in the league in hitting, fourth in runs and fifth in home runs.

Down points to the injury-related slow power starts by center fielder Brady Anderson and second baseman Roberto Alomar. Anderson's cracked ribs have gradually healed, allowing him fuller extension on his follow-through. Alomar is "this close," Down says, holding two fingers a half-inch apart.

Down believes Anderson is still capable of hitting 30 home runs ** and considers Alomar "real, real close" to returning to offensive form. Last night's two-run homer by Alomar, which reached the facing of the right-field roof in the first inning, gave credence to Down's faith.

As for Anderson, who is hitting .335 and helped pile on against Tigers starting pitcher Brian Moehler with his sixth homer in the second inning, Down said, "A year ago people were talking about him not being the prototypical leadoff hitter because he hit many home runs. Now he's getting on base, scoring runs, taking walks, doing everything a leadoff hitter should do, and people wonder why he's not hitting more home runs."

Down believes a rush of offense is inevitable. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro, almost allergic to cold weather, has hit in 14 of his past 16 games with five home runs. He has 16 RBIs in his past 14 games.

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"If we hit 200 home runs we'll score more runs than last year," said Down, who last weekend described the offense as hitting on only "four or five" of eight cylinders. "I think it's going to happen. You can't tell anything from the short-term. These hitters will reach their level over the long haul. If we're getting the same kind of pitching, well, think about it."

For Down, it gives him a warm feeling all over.

Pub Date: 5/29/97


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