Free from the shackles of the National League, where the designated hitter is regarded as a myth, Harold Baines returned to the Orioles' lineup last night for the first time since May 31 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The surroundings weren't all that familiar, however. Baines was venturing into a different neighborhood.
Manager Mike Hargrove, giving into a slump that has dropped Baines' average to .227, moved down the St. Michael's native to eighth against Philadelphia right-hander Curt Schilling. Usually the No. 5 hitter, Baines had gone as low as seventh this season. And he only did that twice. Last night was the first time Baines had batted eighth since April 24, 1982, while playing right field for the Chicago White Sox against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium.
Never given to outward displays of emotion, Baines treated the news of his lineup placement as he would a pile of clean socks.
"I'm in the lineup. That's all that matters," he said quietly while leaving the clubhouse for the pre-game stretch.
"It's better than hitting 10th," Hargrove quipped before last night's 11-4 rout.
With the Orioles playing six games on the road against the Montreal Expos and New York Mets, Baines had received only two at-bats since occupying the DH slot against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to close out last month. He hit into a fielder's choice and struck out, giving him only one hit in his last 19 trips since homering to lead off the second inning of a May 23 game against the Seattle Mariners at Camden Yards. Baines had been announced as a pinch-hitter on Thursday, but was pulled for Rich Amaral when New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine countered with left-hander John Franco.
Since the inclusion of interleague play into baseball's schedule, Baines has grown accustomed to some periods of inactivity. A view from the bench isn't unsettling.
"I knew it was coming," he said. "This isn't the first year that it's happened."
Except that he's usually not carrying such a cold stick.
Baines, who walked twice and grounded out before being removed for a pinch-runner in the sixth inning, is in a 5-for-39 skid that has taken down his average from a season-high .269 on May 8.
"Everybody goes through these things," said Hargrove, who didn't use Baines at home Friday because the Phillies were starting left-hander Randy Wolf. "Harold's still a good hitter. I don't think Harold's done by any stretch of the imagination. Everybody has struggles, and if you talk to Harold, he'd say he's struggled before in his career. We've just got to find a way to get him out of this. And he will come out of this. He's too good not to."
Though unable to write out a set lineup because of various slumps and pitching matchups, Hargrove has gotten comfortable with Mike Bordick hitting second and Delino DeShields batting third. DeShields opened the season in the second slot, with B.J. Surhoff third and Bordick ninth.
Surhoff was dropped in the order while struggling at the plate, but he's climbed to fifth after a recent surge. He's hit safely in five straight games, is 16-for-56 (.286) in 15 games and has homered in five of the last 14.
For now, Hargrove said he'll stick with Bordick and DeShields behind leadoff hitter Brady Anderson. But that's always subject to change.
"I'm not going to say that I won't go back to hitting Surhoff third and DeShields second and Anderson first, and drop Bordy back down to the nine hole," Hargrove said. "One thing about having five kids, I've learned never to say never. But right now this lineup has been working for the most part. It gets guys in the front of our order who have a little bit of speed and sets it up for our guys who can swing the bats and drive the ball into the gaps.
Bordick, Surhoff and Albert Belle remain the only Orioles to start every game this season. Bordick is the lone member of the group to remain at the same position.
Hargrove spoke with Bordick for about 20 minutes after Friday's game to see if the veteran shortstop needed a breather. Not surprisingly, he was in the lineup again last night.
"He assured me that he didn't want one and he didn't need one, and that he would let me know when he got to the point where he needed one or wanted one," Hargrove said. "Certainly, it's been on my mind the last two weeks, but Mike assures me that he feels fine."
Not that Hargrove will let the player consistently dictate the lineup. He knows better than to believe everything he hears.
"You have to understand that sometimes players lie like [heck]," he said, grinning. "Sometimes the player is the last person to know he needs a day off."
Surhoff has the longest active consecutive-games streak in the majors at 383. There doesn't appear to be an end in sight, though Hargrove indicated he'll withhold Surhoff from a game if it's deemed beneficial or necessary.
"B.J.'s another one of those guys who doesn't want a day off and it doesn't look to me like he needs one," Hargrove said. "He really has battled through the tough part where he wasn't swinging the bat well. I don't think he's back to where he wants to be, but I think he's well down that road to getting where he wants to be.
"If B.J. needs a day off, we'll give him a day off. He's still a long way from catching Cal's streak, so I don't think that's a factor. I think B.J. takes pride in the fact he's got that streak going. But I don't think that's something that should keep us from keeping him fresh."
Hitting high notes
Belle increased his season-high hitting streak to 12 games with a bases-loaded single in the second inning last night, and finished with three hits and four RBIs and two runs.
He's batting .457 (21-for-46) with five homers and 10 RBIs during his recent surge. No longer chasing pitches better left ignored, he's settling into a familiar, warm-weather groove.
"It looks like he's not trying to force the issue all the time like he was earlier," Hargrove said. "He's waiting to get into good counts, and when he gets a pitch to hit, he's hitting it. He's also using the whole field. Albert's a good hitter."
Around the horn
Hall of Fame broadcaster Chuck Thompson celebrated his 79th birthday yesterday. ... Double-A Bowie pitcher Juan Guzman and Single-A Delmarva third baseman Napoleon Calzado were named the organization's Pitcher and Player of the Month for May. Guzman went 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA in six starts. Calzado batted .314 (38-for-121) with eight doubles, 27 RBIs and five steals.