Belle's bat takes toll, but no longer on O's


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles manager Ray Miller pulled out a computerized scouting report on Albert Belle, one that divided the hitting zone into nine squares.

Most of Belle's batting averages were spectacular -- .375 here, .500 there, .875 against fastballs thrown by left-handers down the middle.

The best way to pitch him?

Miller pointed to the squares that represented up and in, down and away.

"Most of the time, that's a ball," he said, pointing to up and in, "and most of the time, that's a ball," he continued, pointing to down and away.

"Now, it's 2-0," Miller said. "Where do you go?"

Miller smiled.

It's no longer his problem.

The Orioles signed Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract to improve their offense, but the hidden benefit is that their pitchers won't have to face him anymore.

"That was the first thing Moose said to me this spring," Chris Hoiles said, referring to Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina. "He wears Moose out."

Moose, and the rest of the American League.

Belle finished last season with a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage than National League MVP Sammy Sosa.

He narrowly missed becoming the first player since Stan Musial in 1948 to record 100 extra-base hits and 400 total bases in the same season.

And he batted .457 with eight homers and 22 RBIs against Kansas City, new pitching coach Bruce Kison's former team. Each of those numbers was his season high against an opponent.

"Kison came in. He's got cards like I do," Miller said, referring to the proverbial "book" managers and pitching coaches keep on hitters.

"He said, 'I've torn up five cards on Albert Belle. I haven't gotten him out.' "

Mussina and Rhodes recall a game-winning homer that Belle hit off former teammate Alan Mills at Jacobs Field in 1994 -- an opposite-field shot on a 93-mph fastball that was high and outside.

"How do you get a ball neck-high and drive it out like that?" Mussina asked.

Rhodes still can't believe it happened.

"I've never seen a ball hit like that go over the fence," he said.

Strictly by the numbers, Frank Thomas remains the hitter that Mussina most hates to face. But the Orioles' ace said that Belle actually had given him more problems in recent seasons.

"You'd try to get him out different places -- in, out, down and away," Mussina said. "But every place you tried to get him out, he seemed to get a good swing, hit the ball hard. If you pitched him in, he'd turn on it. If you pitched him away, he'd drive it to right-center.

"Psychologically, that's difficult. The next time he comes up, you go, 'OK, what am I going to do? Where else do I have to try to get him out?' It's tough. He's so strong. No matter where you try to get him out, if you make the smallest mistake, there's a chance he'll hit it out of the park."

Mike Timlin, the Orioles' new closer, remembers facing Belle at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium in '91. Timlin was a rookie then. Belle was slumping, but on his way to a breakthrough season.

"He seemed pretty frustrated. He was kind of easy to get out," Timlin said. "Once he moved over to the new stadium [Jacobs Field], he was a changed hitter. He hit everything. It was like he knew what you were throwing."

If often seems that way with Belle, who is vastly underrated as a student of the game. He keeps index cards with notes on each pitcher, and sets opponents up the way Eddie Murray once did.

"A lot of times, he already has a pretty good idea of what you're trying to do to him," Orioles catcher Lenny Webster said. "He sits on pitches. He's a smart, patient hitter."

How do you get him out?

Mussina said that Belle rarely misses a mistake, and hits even quality pitches. He recalled throwing Belle a nasty curveball a few seasons back, only to see the pitch ripped back through the box.

If Belle has a weakness, it's balls up in the zone. But this is a guy who had 200 hits last season. His home run off Mills was on a ball that was up. And Timlin had a similar experience three years ago.

"On 3-2, I threw him a fastball up and away, and he hit a double to right-center," Timlin said. "I really wasn't trying to give him anything to hit. I was basically trying to pitch around him without really doing it. And he hit it hard enough to get to the gap."

What makes Belle more remarkable is that he accomplishes these feats in front of booing crowds in virtually every road city. He's notorious for his temper, but at least when he's on the field, he's unflappable.

"You marvel at his concentration on each at-bat," Miller said. "Regardless of the score, you see that fierce swing. Nothing distracts him. You almost want to yell and scream at him, get him upset, break his concentration."

Check that, Ray -- it's no longer your problem.

"It will be nice not having to face him," Timlin said. "Now I can yell for him instead of yelling about him."

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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