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With Sosa's slumpin' here, O's hope slammin' returns


It's happened several times this year.

Sammy Sosa takes a hard swing, double-hops out of the batter's box and begins his trot to first base - only to watch the ball drop into the glove of a waiting outfielder.

During those magical Sammy-Slammin' years in Chicago, baseballs hit hard by Sosa always seemed to land in the middle of the outstretched arms of Bleacher Bums.

But not this season. Not in Baltimore. Not yet, anyway, his supporters say.

"Every day when we leave the [dugout] tunnel, I have a real good feeling," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said about Sosa. "He has got real good [work] habits, and I think he is on the verge of breaking out."

When the Orioles traded for Sosa in February, the front office believed he'd fit perfectly into its clubhouse mix, fans would love his energy and the team would benefit from his impressive power. So far, two out of three ain't bad, but it ain't particularly good, either.

As the team's cleanup hitter, Sosa is supposed to protect No. 3 hitter Miguel Tejada while having a garden-variety season of 35-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs.

Through his first 222 at-bats, however, Sosa is batting just .239 with nine homers and 26 RBIs - putting him sixth on the team in the power categories. Meanwhile, Tejada's seven intentional walks are third in the American League.

Sosa is on pace to have his worst offensive season since 1992, his first with the Cubs. His home run ratio of one every 24.6 at-bats is nearly twice his career average.

In the clutch, he's been worse. He is hitting just .213 with runners in scoring position - among the bottom dozen in the American League (50 minimum at-bats). He had two chances last night and didn't come through either time. Overall, he went hitless in four at-bats.

So what has happened to Sosa?

Some scouts believe age is catching up with the 36-year-old, that his bat speed has slowed considerably. Others question where his legendary strength has gone. Other observers believe he's had significant trouble adjusting to the AL or that the staph infection that caused him to miss 16 games in May has set him back. Plenty of theories, no real answers.

For now, Sosa doesn't want to discuss his performance as an Oriole, politely saying he'll talk "in a few days, not now."

Those who see him every day are holding out faith that Sosa will slam once again.

"For me, Sammy is a guy that is going to get on a hot streak and he's one that could really take a lot of this team on his shoulders, too," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Sammy has done this for a pretty long time and has been very successful doing it and that's what I think he will do in the very near future."

Crowley shakes his head when he hears speculation Sosa's bat has slowed.

"He's got plenty of bat speed ... " Crowley said. "It's got nothing to do with bat speed because more often than not he's a little bit out front."

In a 3-for-27 slump, Sosa got the day off Sunday, the first time he hadn't started since June 8. Last night he batted fifth, a spot lower than normal.

"I didn't drop him, I switch around the lineups," Mazzilli said. "He's been down there before, we switch it around, it's not the first time."

It was the 21st time Sosa batted fifth this season, but only the fourth time Rafael Palmeiro has hit cleanup ahead of Sosa.

In his 37 games batting cleanup, Sosa has hit .259 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 147 at-bats.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, his average is 14th of 17 AL hitters with 100 or more at-bats at cleanup. He's tied for 10th in homers and 14th in RBIs.

Tejada, who has 18 fewer at-bats than Sosa at cleanup, has eight homers and 22 RBIs in the spot. Palmeiro has just 23 at-bats there, including two last night.

Mazzilli isn't ready to move Sosa out of the middle permanently, though. And Crowley is sure the patience will pay off.

"Nobody works harder, nobody is more dedicated," Crowley said. "He is as strong as a bull and he has a passion for the game. ... Those can only add up to a good positive finish of the year for him."

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