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Pirates

Lofton on tear

Joe Rutter
| Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Ask Pirates outfielder Kenny Lofton a question about his career-high 18-game hitting streak and chances are he'll put his thumb and index finger together and run them horizontally across his lips.

For superstitious reasons, Lofton wants to put a zipper on anything that has to do with what has emerged as the longest hitting streak in the National League this season.

So let the numbers -- and others in the Pirates clubhouse -- do the speaking for him.

During the streak, Lofton has collected 30 hits in 73 at-bats, a .411 spurt that has raised his batting average 93 points to .298. It's the highest Lofton has batted since the second game of the season. He has scored 16 runs and collected 10 multi-hit games, including five of his past six.

"What Kenny has done is amazing," outfielder Reggie Sanders said.

Sanders has a point. Lofton has pieced together this career-high streak -- his previous long was a 17-game streak in 1994 -- with his 36th birthday staring at him in the frontview mirror. The page on another calendar will flip for Lofton on May 31.

"To see where he was at .205 and to see him day-in and day-out get his hits and get back to about .300 is gratifying," Sanders said. "That's the old Kenny I remember."

The old Kenny. Those three words can be taken different ways. To Sanders, it means Lofton is playing like the center fielder who has made six trips to the All-Star Game. To Lofton, it conjures up memories of his unsettling offseason.

Deemed too old by some major-league teams, Lofton remained on the free-agent market until the Pirates coaxed him into signing a one-year, $1.025 million contract March 15. Lofton was the last premium free agent on the market until he signed with the Pirates.

"There's always a knock on you when you're in this game," said Sanders, who also is 35 years old and was another late free-agent signee. "This game is all about proving yourself over and over."

Lofton, however, thought he had done that in the playoffs last year for the San Francisco Giants. He batted .292 with two doubles, one triple, one homer, six RBI and five stolen bases in 19 postseason games. He batted .290 in the World Series and had three hits in Games 4 and 5.

Lofton hasn't hid the fact that he came into the season with a chip on his shoulder. And despite having only two weeks of spring training to prepare for the season, Lofton held his own at the beginning of April. He batted .275 during the Pirates' 7-3 start.

When the team's record started to go south, so did Lofton's batting average. He went into a 7-for-48 tailspin that dropped his average to .205 through April 27. Not coincidentally, the Pirates were 3-11 in that span.

"One thing that can happen when you're going well is things can snowball," Sanders said. "But when things are going bad, it can go the other way just as fast."

Although he won't talk about his streak, Lofton will talk about his hitting approach, and he thinks he's doing nothing different than in the first month of the season.

"I'm seeing the ball the same, and I think I've been hitting the ball hard all year," said Lofton, who leads the Pirates in runs (26) and steals (eight). "The balls are just starting to fall in now."

Manager Lloyd McClendon thought it was only a matter of time until the results started working again in Lofton's favor.

"Kenny's a player, someone who can make things happen for us," McClendon said. "When you have a good leadoff hitter, you have an opportunity to score more runs."

Perhaps, it's no coincidence that the offensively challenged Pirates scored 22 runs in their three-game weekend series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Lofton was responsible for three of them, scoring in the first inning in two of the three games.

"Things are starting to click for us," McClendon said. "Hopefully, we're getting back on track."

It all starts at the top, with Lofton, the hottest hitter in the NL. Just don't ask him to talk about it.

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