With a 2-1 lead, one out and a Marlins runner on first base in
the top of the eighth inning last Friday night, Astros pitcher
Shane Reynolds thought his work was done. After all, his pitch
count was approaching 100, and the Marlins' most dangerous
hitter, Gary Sheffield, was striding to the plate. But to
Reynolds's surprise, Houston manager Larry Dierker allowed him
to face Sheffield, who promptly bounced into a double play.
After the Astros' Billy Wagner came in to pitch a scoreless
ninth inning for his sixth save, Reynolds sat in the locker room
and speculated that last season, under the same circumstances,
he would have been pulled by Terry Collins, Houston's manager at
the time. But so far Dierker, in his first season as a manager
after 18 years in the Houston broadcast booth, has exhibited
more faith in his starting pitchers than any other skipper in
baseball. "I'm not trying to make heroes out of these guys,"
Dierker says. "I'm just trying to convince them that they can
overcome adversity and pitch deeper into games. I'm asking them
to expand their horizons."
Dierker doesn't believe his philosophy is revolutionary. In
fact, he labels it his Back to the Future theory, because he's
merely allowing his starters the leeway that he enjoyed as an
Astros pitcher from 1964 to '76, when he went 137-117. During
that time Dierker set team records that still stand for most
complete games (106) and innings pitched (2,295). In the '69
season, when he went 20-13, he pitched 305 innings and completed
20 of 37 starts. Last season, by comparison, Houston's entire
staff threw only 13 complete games.
"Larry handles us with a stubborn starting pitcher's mentality,"
Reynolds says. "He likes to let us determine our own fate. It
gives us all an ego boost to know that when he gives us the
ball, we usually don't have to give it back until we're ready."
As a result, at week's end Reynolds led the National League in
innings pitched (54 1/3), and he had a 4-2 record with a 2.65
ERA and two complete games. His teammate Darryl Kile was
averaging more than seven innings per start--for the first time
in his career--after throwing a four-hit shutout in a 1-0 win
over the Marlins on Sunday. And Dierker is working with his No.
3 starter, Mike Hampton, on altering his power style to get
quicker outs. "One of the hardest things for a young guy to
realize," says Dierker, "is that the object of pitching is to
make them hit the ball, not miss it. The sooner you can make
them hit the ball poorly, the sooner you can get an out."
So far it's working. At week's end Houston was atop the Central
Division by 1 1/2 games over Pittsburgh, and Astros starters had
a combined 3.36 ERA and were leading the league with 198 1/3
innings pitched in 30 games, an average of nearly seven innings
per start. "Dirk is showing a great deal of confidence in all of
us," Kile says.
Meanwhile, Houston's bullpen has been among the best in
baseball, with a 2.12 ERA. "We're not exactly overworked,"
Wagner says, "and down the road that could give us a huge
advantage over last year, when we were all tired and sore in
TONY THE TIGER
Tigers first baseman Tony Clark admits that he always hoped he
would become a star--he just never hoped he would become a
baseball star. As a kid growing up outside San Diego, the
multitalented 24-year-old Clark, who broke a Detroit record with
27 RBIs in April, had his sights set on the NBA. "It wasn't that
long ago," he says, "that I was still a frustrated basketball
player playing baseball."
Who could blame him? A forward for Christian High in El Cajon,
Calif., the 6'8" Clark averaged 43.7 points per game during his
senior season ('89-90), and he broke many of the San Diego
County scoring records set by Bill Walton. Still, though Clark
barely played baseball in his senior year and was committed to
pursuing a hoops career, the Tigers admired his skills enough to
choose him second overall in the '90 draft.
Thus began a confusing period in Clark's athletic development.
After a brief stint in Rookie League baseball that summer, Clark
joined the basketball team at Arizona, where during a November
practice he landed awkwardly on a teammate's foot and wrenched
his back. A month later he abruptly left school because he
wasn't playing much and wasn't getting along with Wildcats coach
Lute Olson. In August '91, after he had transferred to San Diego
State to play basketball, Clark had surgery for a herniated
disk, which he believes dated back to his brief stay at Arizona.
While continuing his college basketball career, Clark played
baseball each of the next two summers, but the Tigers grew
increasingly frustrated with him. "He was a mixed-up kid," says
Larry Parrish, Clark's manager at Class A Niagara Falls in '92.
"Sometimes he'd have tears in his eyes. He didn't know what to
do. I'd have him with me mentally for a day or two, and then I
Says Clark, "I was a natural in hoops, but that dream was
slipping away, and I was faced with playing a sport I hardly
knew. The uncertainty was killing me."
The issue was settled for good in the winter of '92, when one of
Clark's legs went numb from further disk problems. He realized
that continuing to play basketball was too debilitating and he
would have to quit.
After having been limited by injuries to a total of only 88
minor league baseball games from '90 to '93, Clark finally
played close to a full season in '94, collecting 23 homers and
99 RBIs while dividing his time between Double A and Triple A
ball. He had another stellar season at Triple A Toledo in '95,
but he was stuck behind Cecil Fielder on the Tigers' depth
chart. Then, as the '96 trade deadline approached, Fielder was
dealt to the Yankees. Clark made the most of his opportunity,
outhomering Fielder, 15-13, the rest of the way. "Tony can be a
dominant force, no question," says Fielder. "He's got an
opportunity to do some real heavy stuff in this game."
At week's end, Clark had played roughly the equivalent of one
major league season, 156 games, and had hit .256 with 39 home
runs and 114 RBIs. He had nine homers and 31 RBIs in '97 and was
hitting .294 even though he had endured 1-for-26 and 1-for-20
slumps and had struck out once in every three at bats.
"Clark is young and still learning, but he asks all the right
questions," Tigers manager Buddy Bell says. "There's no telling
what this kid's going to do when he gets more than 1,000 at bats
in pro ball."
THE RBI MACHINE
When Tino Martinez set the major league record of 34 RBIs in the
month of April, it represented an unusually torrid start for the
Yankees first baseman. During the five previous Aprils of his
career, Martinez had a grand total of 45 RBIs.
"He always gets big base hits," says teammate Paul O'Neill.
"Tino has the same approach every time he's up there. A lot of
guys change their swing, depending on who they're facing, if
it's a lefty or righty, what inning it is, what the score is or
if they're in a slump. Tino never changes. He knows that sooner
or later he's going to get a pitch he'll like. And he always
seems to be ready."
On Sunday, Martinez cracked a pair of homers and knocked in four
more runs in a 13-5 win over the Royals, giving him 12 dingers
and a major-league-leading 40 RBIs for the season. He attributes
his fast start to finally being relaxed in New York. Last year,
having signed a five-year, $20 million contract with the Yankees
after they dealt third baseman Russ Davis and lefthanded pitcher
Sterling Hitchcock to the Mariners for him, he was pressing at
the start of the season. Plus he was replacing longtime Yankees
favorite Don Mattingly. "I was trying so hard to hit the ball
out that I was barely getting it out of the infield. It was
embarrassing," Martinez says.
He started to turn things around with a game-winning, three-run
homer against the Orioles on April 30 as the Yankees moved into
first place for the first time last season, and he followed that
with a 15th-inning grand slam the next night. He went on to hit
.292 with 25 homers and 117 RBIs.
He's picked up this year right where he left off last season,
though he still can't forget his awful postseason, when he hit
only .188 and was benched in Game 5 of the World Series. "If we
hadn't won it all," he says. "I probably would still feel like I
had something to prove."
THE DROUGHT CONTINUES
On May 5, 1987, 10 years ago this week, diminutive Braves
shortstop Rafael Belliard, then with Pittsburgh, hit the first
home run of his major league career. He is still working on his
Since Belliard went deep against Padres pitcher Eric Show, three
players have hit more than 300 homers: Mark McGwire (332), Barry
Bonds (320) and Fred McGriff (320), and another 23 have hit more
than 200. Belliard's homer occurred on the 405th at bat of his
career, and he has had 1,813 at bats since, becoming only the
second major leaguer--pitchers excepted--to endure a full decade
without a home run. (Tommy Thevenow went homerless between 1926
For those who saw it, the memory is preserved forever. "The ball
cleared the fence by two feet, yet Raffy stood and looked at it
like he knew it was gone," says former teammate Andy Van Slyke.
The most amazing aspect of Belliard's feat may not be that he
has yet to hit another homer but that he is still around trying.
He has carved out a remarkable career, surviving 15 major league
seasons despite averaging fewer than 10 RBIs per year. Though
the Braves, whom Belliard joined after leaving the Pirates in
'91, have used him primarily as a late-inning defensive
replacement, he is considered a good-luck charm. He is the only
major leaguer to have played on a division champion for six
straight nonstrike seasons since baseball switched to divisional
play in '69.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL BAPTIST With Dierker at the helm, Reynolds is leading the National League in innings pitched. [Shane Reynolds pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: ERNIE ANDERSON/SAN DIEGO STATE In college Clark was shooting for an NBA career, but then injuries forced him to focus on baseball. [Tony Clark playing basketball]
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT [See caption above--Tony Clark playing baseball]
A STREAKING BIG UNIT
When Seattle's Randy Johnson beat Milwaukee 8-1 on May 2, it was
his 16th consecutive decision without a loss. That put him in
select company, but as the list below shows, he is not yet close
to matching the longest such streak.
PITCHER, TEAM STREAK YEAR(S)
CARL HUBBELL, N.Y. Giants 24 1936-37
ROY FACE, Pirates 22 1958-59
RUBE MARQUARD, N.Y. Giants 20 1911-12
ED REULBACH, Cubs 17 1906-07
JOHNNY ALLEN, Indians 17 1936-37
DAVE MCNALLY, Orioles 17 1968-69
WILD BILL DONOVAN, Tigers 16 1907-08
WALTER JOHNSON, Senators 16 1912
SMOKY JOE WOOD, Red Sox 16 1912
LEFTY GROVE, Philadelphia A's 16 1931
GENERAL CROWDER, Senators 16 1932-33
SCHOOLBOY ROWE, Tigers 16 1934
EWELL BLACKWELL, Reds 16 1947
JACK SANFORD, Giants 16 1962
TOM SEAVER, Mets 16 1969-70
RICK SUTCLIFFE, Cubs 16 1984-85
RANDY JOHNSON, Mariners 16 1995-97
Source: Elias Sports Bureau