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O's break new ground with their crack attack

BOSTON — BOSTON - The Orioles had the second-worst offense in the American League last season, and Jay Gibbons spent his winter waiting for management to help do something about it.

After hearing so much talk about how the Orioles were going to add a big bat, Gibbons and his teammates sat there wondering what happened as the biggest free agents signed elsewhere, from Jim Thome and Hideki Matsui to Cliff Floyd, Ivan Rodriguez and Jose Cruz.

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Gibbons showed up at spring training, and the faces were pretty much the same.

The Orioles replaced shortstop Mike Bordick with Deivi Cruz. They signed B.J. Surhoff to a minor-league contract, and there were no guarantees he would even make the team.

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Coming off the worst 36-game finish in major league history, it would have been tough to blame Gibbons for thinking, "Here we go again."

And yet, here it is, the second week of August, and the Orioles have the most improved offense in baseball. After hitting .246 last year, the team entered last night batting .279, good for third in the AL, with an improvement of 33 points.

The Atlanta Braves have improved their team average by 24 points this season, and the Toronto Blue Jays by 21 points. Otherwise, no other team comes close.

"I wasn't expecting this much of a change," Gibbons said. "I figured another big bat would have helped us, but our offense has been pretty dang good. It's been fun. It just seems like we've been on a roll all year."

Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan crunched the numbers last winter and decided the offense needed to score 100 more runs this season. Last year, the Orioles scored 667, or 4.1 a game.

It turns out, Flanagan might have undershot the goal. At the rate they were going entering last night (5.1 runs a game), the Orioles were on pace to score 823 for the season, which would be an improvement of 156.

"When we didn't sign a big bat, we spent a long time with our manager and the coaches, talking about the importance of plate discipline, getting on base and wearing down the opposing pitcher," Flanagan said. "They came to spring training and made it their game plan."

Early in the spring, manager Mike Hargrove and hitting coach Terry Crowley held hitters meetings, where they reflected on what went wrong during the 4-32 collapse.

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During that stretch, the Orioles averaged 2.86 runs a game.

"Last September, we swung at a lot of first pitches, and everybody tried to take it on themselves to do more than they were capable of," Hargrove said. "We tried to emphasize the value of what you really would think are insignificant things, like an eight-pitch at-bat your first time through the order. If you string those together, by the sixth or seventh inning, now you've got the starter's pitch count up, and a lot of things can happen when a pitcher starts getting tired."

Hargrove and Crowley had been preaching this stuff to hitters around the batting cage for years. Now they are seeing the improvement, as the team's on-base percentage has jumped from .309 last year to .334 entering last night, for an improvement of 25 points.

"There's more of a formality to it than before," Hargrove said. "Before, we talked to the hitters individually all the time. This year we brought them together as a group and had discussions, and it was good."

But, as Gibbons said, it's one thing to talk about making an improvement; it's another to go out and do it.

Why is this offense so much better? Consider the following breakdown:

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Top of the order: Jerry Hairston and Melvin Mora both flopped in their efforts as leadoff men last year. This year, Hairston was brilliant until he broke a bone in his right foot, and there's been very little drop-off with Brian Roberts in his place.

Luis Matos became an overnight success after taking over for Gary Matthews in center field. Matthews' on-base percentage dipped 105 points from last year's mark, so the Orioles quickly jettisoned him, sending a message that this is a new era.

Meanwhile, Mora went from being a .249 career hitter to one of the AL's batting leaders. From the top three spots in the batting order, the Orioles are hitting 140 points higher than they did a year ago.

"It's like we have three leadoff hitters, with three No. 5 hitters coming up behind them," Flanagan said.

Middle of the order: Looking back on the 36-game debacle, there were several games that characterized the Orioles' futility. On Sept. 3 against Texas, Mora and Hairston walked to start the first inning against Rangers starter Aaron Myette. But neither runner moved an inch, as the next three hitters - Chris Richard, Tony Batista and Gibbons - all struck out swinging.

If the Orioles had a heart of the order, it had stopped beating.

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David Segui and Matthews were on the disabled list. Jeff Conine, who was batting sixth that day, had missed 45 games with a strained hamstring and was still getting his timing back. Gibbons had a suture pressing against a nerve in his left wrist, and he was agonizing in pain.

But Conine, Gibbons and Batista have been fixtures this year, missing just two games apiece. Last year, they combined for 219 RBIs. Entering last night, they had missed just two games apiece, and combined for 228 RBIs.

Last year, that trio had 219 RBIs.

"The top three guys in our lineup have been getting on base all the time," Conine said. "Me and Gibby and Tony are reaping the benefits."

Bottom of the order: Last year, Bordick hit .232 with 36 RBIs. Entering last night, Cruz was hitting .264 with 52 RBIs.

Surhoff has been on the DL twice, but when healthy, he has been a hitting machine. Segui, still riddled with injuries, has 224 at-bats this year compared with 95 a year ago. Even with those two missing the amount of time they have, the Orioles' designated hitters entered yesterday hitting .251, bettering last year's .247 mark.

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The Orioles are getting more production from the catcher position as well. Last year, with Geronimo Gil getting most of the playing time, the catchers hit .232. This year, with Brook Fordyce getting most of the action, the catchers are hitting .264.

"Whoever pitches against us now has to pitch up and down [the lineup]," Crowley said. "There were some times last year where they only had to pitch to maybe 3, 4, 5 and 6."

Barring injuries, the offense looks much more collapse-proof than it did last season.

In some ways, even when the Orioles were sitting 63-63 on Aug. 23, they looked vulnerable. They ranked ninth in the AL with a .256 average and were averaging 4.5 runs a game. They had outscored their opponents, 564-563, and were 35-25 in games decided by two runs or fewer.

This year the Orioles feel more secure about themselves. Entering yesterday, they were 56-58 and had outscored their opponents, 578-562. More of their wins have been convincing; they were just 25-29 in games decided by two runs or fewer entering yesterday.

"Last year, there were a lot of games that we had no business winning," Gibbons said. "We came back and won a lot of games late. This year, we haven't had to battle quite as much. We've won a lot of games from the first inning on. I just think our luck kind of ran out on us last year."

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And this is one case where the Orioles would rather be good than lucky.

Anatomy of an improved lineup

A closer look at why the Orioles are so much better offensively this year (through Friday; OBP: on-base percentage)

2002 2003 Change

Avg. OBP Avg. OBP Avg. OBP

Leadoff .242 .333 .284 .371 +.042 +.038

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No. 2 hitters .245 .295 .299 .356 +.054 +.061

No. 3 hitters .253 .317 .295 .360 +.042 +.043

Catchers .232 .277 .264 .315 +.032 +.038

Jeff Conine .273 .307 .285 .335 +.012 +.028

Jerry Hairston .268 .329 .287 .387 +.019 +.058

Brian Roberts .227 .308 .278 .351 +.051 +.043

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Tony Batista .244 .309 .252 .291 +.008 --.012

Mike Bordick/

Deivi Cruz .232 .302 .264 .276 +.034 --.026

Melvin Mora .233 .338 .325 .407 +.092 +.069

Gary Matthews .276 .355 .204 .250 --.072 --.105

Luis Matos .129 .156 .339 .371 +.210 +.215

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Jay Gibbons .247 .311 .298 .359 +.051 +.048

Designated hitters .247 .314 .251 .320 +.004 +.006

Totals .246 .309 .279 .334 +.033 +.025


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