Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Orioles Ramp Up Their Base Running

Designated hitter Aubrey Huff has never been known for his speed on the base paths. Entering this season, he had stolen only 21 bases over his seven-year career, spent almost exclusively in the power-dominated AL East. When he reaches first base, he said, opposing pitchers sometimes don't even bother to look.

But when the subject of base running came up in the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse this weekend, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Huff cracked a wry smile and slowly pumped his fist in front of his locker.

"I've got two bags," he said, making reference to one of this season's surprising statistics.

Huff has two stolen bases, a reflection of the Manager Dave Trembley's plan to use fearless base running to counter a shortage of power in the Orioles lineup -- nobody on the roster hit more than 23 home runs last season.

Aside from stealing bases, Orioles third base coach Juan Samuel has been aggressively sending runners home while players not seen as speed threats have been urged to lean toward tagging up on close plays. First baseman Kevin Millar has scored from first base on a hit this season. Against Seattle earlier this month, catcher Ramón Hernández scored after tagging up on a line drive to left field.

"You've got to take your chances," Hernández said.

Said Huff, "It puts pressure on the defense and definitely makes the game more exciting."

Not surprisingly, the faster players have been quick to embrace the style as well. Roberts is tied for the American League lead with seven stolen bases and Nick Markakis has stretched a single into a double at least once this season.

"You've got to manufacture runs," Roberts said. "If you don't hit a homer, not many guys score from first."

At times, the strategy has also worked against the Orioles. Baltimore runners have been picked off twice this season and base runners have been thrown out on the base paths -- the kind of particularly risky play that makes baseball statisticians cringe.

Base stealing runs contrary to research that has seemingly debunked its value, labeling the tactic as too costly in light of the risk of making an out on the base paths.

But Trembley, who revealed his preference for aggressive base running when he assumed the managerial role last season, remains undeterred.

"I don't think there's any secret that when I took over last year, we tried to do some of that stuff," said Trembley, who has regularly dipped into his bag of hit-and-runs and double steals. "Now I'm trying to emphasize it even more."

When Trembley hired first base coach John Shelby in the offseason, he put the former Orioles outfielder in charge of improving the team's base running, a process that began in earnest during the team's earliest days in spring training.

"You don't need fast base runners to be good base runners," Shelby said. "You just need to be aggressive and we've gone about it the right way, getting good secondary leads, getting these guys not afraid to get a big lead. A lot of these guys aren't used to getting big leads, but that's what I want."

Trembley maintains the risk is worth the reward, provided that the Orioles remain fundamentally sound and avoid crossing the line from aggressive to reckless.

"Some of those things will work in your favor," Trembley said. "When they do, they look great. When they don't, then you're kind of hung out to dry somewhat and you've got to readjust a little bit. You don't want to run what I call 'kamikaze style.' You don't run until you're out. Force it, but under control."


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