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Gently dropping Sosa to sixth carries hope of rise


LIGHTNING FLASHED, thunder roared, the skies blackened and a hot, threatening wind blew through Camden Yards yesterday. Big, big trouble was in the air. Sammy Sosa had been dropped to sixth in the Orioles" batting order.

Thankfully, one had nothing to do with the other. Or so it appears.

Sosa took the news of his hitting sixth last night against the Yankees - one night after being dropped to fifth - very well, insisted Lee Mazzilli before the game. That wasn't exactly a given, considering that one of the more entertaining episodes in the soap opera, "So Long, Sammy." was his demotion in the Cubs" order by Dusty Baker last season.

But, Baker's Baltimore counterpart said, "It was no problem. We had a great conversation."

The reasons Mazzilli gave for the move were pretty logical under the circumstances. The Orioles were taking the marquee acquisition of their offseason and slotting him behind Jay Gibbons and ahead of Luis Matos, but with all the injuries and, according to them, Sosa pressing so much, what else could they do? It's just temporary, they"re saying, until the ol" pop comes back to his bat.

Mazzilli gave the same reasons to Sosa, and Sosa agreed. Some two hours later, the sellout crowd at Camden Yards voiced its agreement. Up in the second inning with none out, the Yankees up 2-1 already and Gibbons on first with a single, Sosa was greeted with scattered boos.

When he grounded into a neat 6-4-3, the boos became a lot less scattered, even in the midst of the usual Yankees majority. The next two at-bats: two more groundouts. The boos got louder. The final indignity was that eighth-inning at-bat on which only Derek Jeter's latest brilliant defensive play kept him from being at least something close to a hero for the night.

Amidst that, the new cleanup hitter, Rafael Palmeiro, smoked a two-run homer in the sixth that kept the O's in the game. Palmeiro has batted as low as seventh this season. Hey, maybe, just maybe

But that's different. Basically, he's not Sammy. And Sosa's stats, which dipped in his last, contentious season at Wrigley, not only haven't smoothed out, they"ve cratered.

Still, if this seminal moment in Sosa's brief Orioles career was going to happen, it's no surprise it's happening now, with the wheels coming off and the O's losing grip on a number of things, the least of which is first place in the division.

Miguel Tejada, Sosa's most fervent supporter - to the point that he was giving Sosa credit for his hot start in April because he protected him so well - did his best to point out that too much might be made of the drop in the order.

"This is not all about Sammy Sosa." Tejada said.

Wrong. Fair or not, everything is about Sammy Sosa. It's part of being Sammy Sosa. Knees blow out, bullpens blow up, managers and setup men go ballistic and claim conspiracy theories that would make coaches in the NBA playoffs blush. But Sosa's slump is trumping them all, and so is this concession to his ineffectiveness.

The Yankees arrived in town in full-blown crisis mode (as usual), yet they haven't been the most dysfunctional and backsliding team at the ballpark this week. And for once, the player most under the microscope was not wearing an "NY' on his cap.

The honeymoon for Sosa may not be completely over, but it's getting close to check-out time. The Orioles" two-month run at the top protected him and his brutal start from serious disenchantment. Now that the team is slipping, his slump is even more glaring. It couldn't be hidden anymore, couldn't be explained away, couldn't be excused.

Now, Mazzilli looks to protect Sosa further by getting him out of the cleanup spot, far out of it, to do whatever it takes to jump-start him - and whatever it takes to let him know that he's not going to get buried, that if a little stroking of the star is necessary, then the team is not above stroking away.

It appeared to work, at least in terms of the tension level in the clubhouse. "He was really nice about it. I really respect that." Sosa told reporters before the game. "It's not the first time I've hit sixth. I don't have a problem with that."

Take that as a little dig at Dusty, if you like. Or not.

Mazzilli, for his part, gave Sosa that little extra love that you figure he"d need and which you"d swear was totally absent in his previous location.

"He just wanted me to know, "I'll play hard for you, you know that," ' Mazzilli said. "I said, "I know that." That's why you can never get mad at him."

Even when he grounds out to the left side, over and over again, no matter where he's batting.

Until last night, the Orioles had been losing in every way possible, but if they lose Sosa now, it would be their biggest loss of the season. Thus, the walking on eggshells. If it hasn't worked at the plate yet, for now it's worked inside Sosa's helmet.

"I'm a competitor, but I've got a pitcher trying to get me out, too." he said. "Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. The only thing I can do is go out there and keep fighting."

Not like last year in Chicago, but you get the idea.

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