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Lawton eager to fill void as team's leadoff hitter



Published: Thu, February 24, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The former Indian feels most comfortable at the top of the order.

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) -- Matt Lawton says he feels up to the challenge of replacing Jason Kendall as the Pittsburgh Pirates' leadoff hitter.

The Pirates created a void at the top of their lineup when they traded Kendall, their three-time All-Star catcher, to the Oakland Athletics in November. Three weeks later, they filled it by acquiring Lawton, a two-time All-Star outfielder, from the Cleveland Indians.

Lawton, 33, joined his new team in spring training Wednesday and said he looks forward to being a table setter for the Pirates' lineup of young hitters.

"I'm the first guy to the plate and my job is to get on base," Lawton said.

"Jack Wilson, Jason Bay and Craig Wilson, looking at their numbers, those guys can hit. If I get on base, those guys are going to bring me around to score a lot of runs. That's what I do. I get on base and score. That's what I've been doing since I was a little kid."

Bouncing around

The Indians used Lawton at every spot in the order last season, but he was most comfortable batting leadoff. In 84 games batting first, Lawton had a .380 on-base percentage that ranked fourth among American League leadoff hitters. He also tied for eighth in the AL with 109 runs scored.

Lawton hopes the Pirates stick him in the leadoff spot and leave him there.

"What usually happens is I get on base well, and they start moving me around the lineup," he said. "Hopefully, we won't have that problem here."

Manager Lloyd McClendon said it was too early to make any promises to Lawton. The Pirates finished 13th among the National League teams in runs scored last year, and Lawton's production might be better suited lower in the order.

Lawton batted .277 with 20 homers and 70 RBIs and represented the Indians in the All-Star Game.

"We're a better club if somebody steps up and says, 'I can do this,' and performs at a high level in the leadoff spot," McClendon said. "That pushes Matt down in the order and allows him to drive in more runs, which he is capable of doing. For that to happen, though, somebody has to step up."

Big shoes to fill

Lawton will be replacing one of the team's most popular and productive players. Kendall batted .319 in his final season with the Pirates, scored a team-high 86 runs and had a .404 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot.

"I know Jason was on base a lot last year, as well," Lawton said. "Just knowing his style of hitting, I know he was on a lot. But I think I'm a little big different."

One concern for the Pirates is that Lawton slumped in the second half last season. He batted .305 with 15 homers and 49 RBIs before the All-Star break and .239 with five homers and 21 RBIs thereafter.

Lawton said it was the first time in three seasons with the Indians that he remained injury-free and he wore down in the final three months.

"I just was gassed," Lawton said. "I had nothing left when it got to the end. I read a lot of books this off-season, hired a new strength coach who's going to be with me every day to keep me strong. Hopefully, we won't have that letdown again."




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