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Benchwarmer

Sammy So-So

By Gabriel Wardell | Posted 7/27/2005

Nowhere has the Sammy Sosa problem—and make no mistake, his presence is a problem—been more evident than the O’s 3-2 loss to the Twins in Minneapolis July 20.

On Monday, July 18, the first game of the three-game series, Miguel Tejada’s two-out solo shot homer in the top of the 11th inning proved decisive and the O’s salvaged a game-one win. On Tuesday, Baltimore was not so fortunate. Their wafer-thin one-run lead had been manufactured in the top of the ninth inning when Luis Matos advanced to second on a sac bunt and took third on a passed ball. In the bottom of the inning, Minnesota capitalized on Baltimore’s (increasingly common) defensive malaise—a careless throwing error by rookie catcher Eli Whiteside and a then a B.J. Ryan wild pitch to convert a walk into a run—before pushing the winning run across thanks to a walk and two opportunistic shots. Final score 4-3.

On Wednesday the Orioles and Twins entered the ninth, deadlocked in yet another 2-2 tie. Given the Twins’ newfound propensity for ninth-inning heroics, the Orioles needed to strike in the top, a breakaway sprint too mighty for the Twins to overcome. With two out, opportunity rapped when Tejada banged the ball deep to center field for a double.

Raphael Palmeiro—who had already homered earlier in the game—stepped up to the plate, looking to drive in another RBI. Knowing that Sammy Sosa was on deck, the Twins Ron Gardenhire opted to walk Palmeiro. Intentionally. It’s not like he intentionally walked Barry Bonds to get to a slappy. He walked one slugger (No. 9 on the all-time home-run list with 568) to get to No. 6! With two runners on, two out, with the game on the line, the Twins walked No. 3 on the active list to pitch to No. 2, a man with 585 career homers.

A year ago, with Sosa the cleanup slot for the Chicago Cubs, the idea of walking anyone in order to get to Sosa with the go-ahead runs on-board was unthinkable. This was the sort of highlight-generating spot Sosa craved. Throughout his career, how many times has Sosa produced in these types of situations? Why should he look so anxious stepping up to the plate?

Could it be that Sosa is batting an anemic .236? With only 11 homers this season to date, Sosa ranks 44th (!) alongside not quite fear-inducing sluggers such as Detroit’s Craig Monroe and Cleveland’s Casey Blake. The Orioles’ part-time backup catcher Sal Fasano is nipping at his heels with nine this year.

Sosa’s at bat, like so many this year, ended with a mighty swing, a ferocious rip that almost pulled him out of his shoes, a quixotic Casey at the bat windmill that came up empty.

Is it age? Steroids? Cork? Could the anxiety Sosa exudes at the plate be traced to being beaned in the head by an up-and-in fastball by Salomon Torres in April 2003?

When the Orioles picked up the mega-power-hitting superstar this off-season for the equivalent of a song, they knew they weren’t getting Slammin’ “66-homers-a-year” Sammy. But even replicating his 2003 or ’04 numbers would have been acceptable, at 40 and 35 homers, respectively. Add Sosa to Dan Ford, Glenn Davis, and Albert Belle on the list of sluggers who petered out in Baltimore.

With Sosa’s batting average plummeting and bat speed showing steady decline, it is now clear that the Cubs were right to deal him. By the end of 2004 Sosa’s slump had become so pronounced that manager Dusty Baker was pulling him for pinch hitters. In the final game of the season, Sosa all but burned the Michigan Avenue Bridge when he showered and left the clubhouse before the last out—failing to face the media. The Cubs, looking to remove the distraction, even agreed to pay $15.5 million of Sosa’s contract not to play for them.

All smiles at his welcome to the Orioles press conference, Baltimore fans believed that a change of scenery would awaken Sosa from his slumber. And for only $1 million a year? With the short porch in right field, visions of Flag Court homers must have danced in GMs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan’s heads.

But as the mighty Sammy lumbered back to the dugout on July 20, after swinging through a pitch he might have clobbered not so long ago, the reality of the situation settled in. The manager, the general managers, the owner, and even Sosa himself, all nodded like the brigade of bobble-heads that bear his likeness, wondering if he’ll ever return to his former glory.

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More from Gabriel Wardell

Parting Shots (9/14/2005)
The easiest way to tell when Tim McCarver is going to be wrong about something is to note when he is speaking.

Macro and Micro (9/7/2005)
The "Oriole Way" has become synonymous with "half-assed."

Choker’s Wild (8/31/2005)
Wild Card Races Are Bullshit.

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