Baltimore is loaded with high-profile sluggers, but in the club's surprising 8--4 start no one provided more power than its 5'9", 180-pound leadoff hitter, second baseman Brian Roberts. Last Saturday, Roberts, who hit four homers in 159 games in 2004 and had the American League's sixth-lowest home run rate (one per 160.3 at bats), smacked his fifth dinger in 11 games--a three-run, game-winning blast that gave the Orioles a 7--6 victory over the Yankees. "I haven't seen anybody as hot as him in a very long time," said New York manager Joe Torre. The next day Roberts went 2 for 4, raising his league-leading average to .449, as Baltimore beat the Yankees for the fifth time in six games, 8--4.
First called up by the Orioles in 2001, the 27-year-old Roberts spent the early part of his career fighting close friend and fellow second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. for at bats. But when Hairston started '04 on the disabled list with a broken finger and then broke his ankle in August, Roberts got his chance to be a regular and hit .273. Roberts became the undisputed second baseman in February, when Hairston was traded to the Cubs as part of the deal that brought Sammy Sosa to Baltimore.
This season the speedy Roberts has been an effective table setter for number 3 hitter Miguel Tejada and cleanup man Sosa--Roberts had a .534 OBP and 15 runs scored, and was 6 for 7 in stolen base attempts--as well as a dangerous run producer. In addition to leading the AL in hitting, Roberts also topped the league in slugging percentage (.898) and hits (22).
A star at two colleges, North Carolina and South Carolina, Roberts has overcome not only his size but also a congenital heart defect that often left him exhausted as a child. (He has been healthy since having surgery at age five.) "He's a strong little guy--don't let the size fool you," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli says. "He picks his spots, looks for a certain pitch and just puts the bat on the ball."
As for the sudden flurry of home runs--last seen from a Baltimore leadoff man in 1996, when bulked up centerfielder Brady Anderson jumped from 16 homers in '95 to 50--Roberts doesn't have an explanation for the dramatic increase in long balls. "I have no idea," he said. "I'm the same person I've always been. It's something that won't last, I'm sure. But crazy things happen in this game every year."