- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. Jerry Hairston has heard the question over and over this spring, and good sport that he is, he always answers in a courteous fashion.
But deep down, the Baltimore Orioles second baseman wonders what all the fuss is for. Really, what's so different about batting leadoff?
"I look at it as just another slot in the lineup," Hairston said. "Once you lead off the game, you're just another player in the lineup. I may not lead off another inning in the game. So it's really not that big a deal."
Maybe not, but with eight days to go until Opening Day, Jerry Hairston the leadoff hitter looks a lot more impressive than Jerry Hairston the No. 9 hitter. With a pair of infield hits in Baltimore's 6-2 win over the New York Mets yesterday, he raised his spring training batting average to .340 well above his .233 regular-season average from 2001.
Even more impressive, the one-time free-swinging 25-year-old has drawn a team-high seven walks, been hit by pitch three times, has a .438 on-base percentage (10th best in the American League) and scored 15 runs (second best in the AL).
"I haven't seen anything so far that tells me he can't do it and hasn't bought into it," manager Mike Hargrove said.
Hairston's success in the leadoff role was anything but a given when the Orioles opened camp last month. The speedy infielder has always seemed like a natural top-of-the-order hitter, but his lack of big league experience and his undisciplined approach at the plate led to an unspectacular 2001 season his first full year in the majors. Batting ninth for the majority of the season, Hairston reached base at a paltry .305 clip, not even close to acceptable for a good leadoff hitter.
But after the Orioles released longtime leadoff man Brady Anderson in November and traded for center fielder Chris Singleton in January (relegating potential leadoff hitter Melvin Mora to the bench), Hairston suddenly became Baltimore's only legitimate choice to take over the top spot.
To emphasize the importance of his role change this year, Hargrove and hitting coach Terry Crowley met with Hairston early in spring training. The message was simple: It was time for Hairston to become the kind of player the Orioles needed him to be.
"I think we all wanted to get on the same page, see where we were all coming from, see what my mindset was," Hairston said. "And it was good that I got to see what their thinking was. To be honest, I had the same ideas as they had for me."
What surprised Hairston was the fact Hargrove and Crowley didn't want him to lose his aggressiveness at the plate altogether, only to refine it and understand when it's time to be patient and when it's time to let loose.
"You want to be patient as a leadoff hitter, but you don't want to be so patient that you get yourself into bad hitting counts," Hargrove said. "You still want to be an aggressive swinger, and Jerry will always be that."
Case in point: Leading off yesterday's game against the Mets, Hairston squared around on Shawn Estes' first pitch and laid down a beautiful drag bunt to the right side. He beat out the play for a single and wound up scoring the Orioles' first run of the game on Jeff Conine's sacrifice fly.
Hairston's ability to put the first pitch he sees into play and reach base safely has also, in a roundabout way, led to more walks.
"When the pitcher knows that you're going to be taking all the time, he's going to groove it down the middle," he said. "But if they know you're aggressive, they're going to try to work you a little bit. And before you know it, it's 3-1 or 3-2 and you get the walk or you get into a good hitting count and you drive the ball."
That show of maturity, along with the obvious results on the field this spring, has led the Orioles to believe Hairston the leadoff hitter is no longer an experiment but a proven commodity.
And if Hairston has his way, come May or June people won't be making a big deal out of the fact that he's hitting leadoff. They'll be more consumed with the fact he's hitting well, regardless of his place in the lineup.
"Jerry's paying attention to what we're trying to get him to do, and that's the first hurdle," Hargrove said. "It's not like, 'Let's try this for two days and if it doesn't work, then we'll go in another direction.' Jerry is sticking with his game plan and doing well. If he continues to do that, he's going to give himself every chance in the world to be a good leadoff hitter."
Notes Jason Johnson offered up the best outing by a Baltimore pitcher this spring in holding the Mets to one run and one hit in seven innings yesterday. Enough about his pitching performance, though. Johnson was more excited about hitting a fourth-inning home run off Estes, his first as a professional ballplayer.
"I hit some in high school, but that was about it," said Johnson, who hasn't been too shabby on the mound either this spring (2-0 with an 0.69 ERA in three starts). "It was just a fastball down the middle of the plate. I don't think he was trying to throw it down the middle, but he did and I got a pretty good hack at it." …
Third baseman Tony Batista had a momentary scare in the seventh inning when he was struck by a pitch in the left hand and fell to the ground in agony. Batista suffered only a minor bruise, though, and he is not expected to miss any playing time. …
The Orioles have won 14 of their last 16 games, thanks in large part to their pitching staff, which has yielded only 41 runs over the last 165⅓-innings (a 2.23 ERA).


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