- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts could hit; everybody knew that. Last season he led the major leagues with a club-record 50 doubles, the most by a switch-hitter in American League history. Good hitters hit doubles. But hardly anyone — make that no one — was prepared for this.

“Instead of [balls] one-hopping over the wall, they’re going out,” Orioles outfielder David Newhan said.

And they’re going out at a frequent and somewhat mystifying rate. Through Tuesday’s game against Seattle, which he left with a bruised knee after getting hit by a pitch (he was not in the lineup last night), Roberts had 11 home runs. That tied him for third in the AL with, among others, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, who hit 34 homers and won the All-Star Game home run derby last season.

Before the season, Roberts had 12 homers in 1,502 big league at-bats.

“I felt I had the ability to put up some of these numbers,” he said, setting up the punch line. “But I thought it would be more over the course of an entire season.”

Numbers? Roberts has numbers, Alex Rodriguez-Ichiro Suzuki-David Ortiz numbers — except that his batting average topped Ichiro’s and he had a higher slugging percentage than A-Rod and more home runs than Ortiz through Tuesday. Actually, Roberts was batting higher than anyone else, .378, and had the top slugging percentage in the majors, .667. He also had 33 RBI and 13 stolen bases, tied for the AL lead.

This from a leadoff hitter listed at 5-foot-9, 178 pounds, an exaggeration on both counts, who batted .273 with four homers and 53 RBI last year.

“I think anybody would be surprised that Brian has hit 11 home runs and it’s still May,” Orioles coach Sam Perlozzo said. “The other parts — his defense, the fact he can hit — I’m not surprised.”

Still, he added, “I doubt we thought he was gonna hit .370.”

Roberts has hit safely in 14 straight games and 40 of the 44 in which he has played. Three of the hitless games came in succession in April.

“The kid got on a hot streak, and it hasn’t stopped,” Baltimore manager Lee Mazzilli said. “He seems like he’s always in the middle of the game, somehow, some way, offensively, and it seems to continue every day, day in, day out. The consistency is pretty overwhelming.”

Roberts, 27, always was known as a fundamentally sound player, the epitome of the hustling little guy who took nothing for granted — especially life. He was born with a hole in his heart that was discovered when he was 9 months old. He had surgery when he was 5 and has been healthy since.

Roberts’ father, Mike, was the baseball coach at the University of North Carolina for 21 years. Brian played for his dad and was ACC player of the year and a first-team All-American as a sophomore. (The Orioles’ B.J. Surhoff also played for Mike Roberts; Brian Roberts first met Surhoff about the time of the heart surgery). Mike Roberts was fired after the 1998 season. Brian considered the situation, gave it some thought and transferred to South Carolina.

In college, a publication named Roberts the best defensive player in the country. Now everybody wants him to talk about his hitting. But most hitters just as soon would avoid the subject, especially when they’re doing well. Why tempt the baseball gods? And how do you explain something that often defies simple explanation?

“You’re just able to process information better and figure out what you need to do,” Roberts said, trying to be helpful.

Wait, here’s one answer everyone seems to agree on — bat speed. Roberts is strong, powerfully built, the result of several years of weightlifting and rigorous, offseason work at a training facility in Tempe, Ariz.

That helps. But there is something else. Maybe it’s the most important thing of all.

“It’s the way he’s playing with confidence,” first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said. “You search for that, you work for that, and a lot of players don’t ever achieve it. But he’s been able to achieve it and sustain it.”

But aren’t all players, once they reach this level, confident by nature?

“There is a higher level we all try to reach,” said Palmeiro, working on 552 career homers and likely bound for the Hall of Fame. “Like Barry Bonds did it when he hit 73 [home runs in 2001]. Sammy [Sosa]. Ichiro when he had [a record] 262 hits last year. When you have that special year, it takes more than just talent. You’ve got to get into that zone.

“I mean, we’re all confident. But this is such a game of failure, especially on offense, that it’s tough to maintain that confidence every at-bat. You always feel you can go up and get a hit, but to actually do it is a different story. Brian has been able to do it all year.”

Roberts’ confidence got a boost when the Orioles traded Jerry Hairston Jr. to the Chicago Cubs before the season. Roberts and Hairston are good friends, but their on-field relationship was uncomfortable. Roberts, a converted shortstop, won the regular-second base job last year only after Hairston suffered a broken thumb during spring training. Before that, they were in constant and sometimes awkward competition.

Even though Roberts’ performance in 2004 prompted the Orioles to tell Hairston to learn to play the outfield before trading him, the notion of having a margin of error, of being able to make a mistake or endure a slump without recrimination proved invaluable.

“Anytime you have job security it makes you more comfortable,” Roberts said. “It makes you work hard to prove they made the right decision, but I don’t have to worry about whether I’m gonna play the next day if I go 0-for-10. … It’s a difficult game when you play every day, much less when you don’t know what’s going on.”

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