THE INSIDE STORY
"The strike zone is little; people are big," Expos righthander
Pedro Martinez once said, explaining why he had hit so many
batters early in his big league career that he was dubbed Senor
Plunk. This season, whenever Martinez is on the mound, the
strike zone is roughly the size of Quebec and it's the batters
who feel very small.
After beating the Dodgers 7-4 on Sunday, Martinez's numbers were
Gibsonian. Seven wins in seven starts. A league-leading 1.20 ERA
(seven earned runs in 52 1/3 innings). A microscopic .183
opponents' batting average. Fifty-six strikeouts and just 11
walks. It was the best start in the majors since Frank Viola won
his first seven starts with a 0.87 ERA for the Mets in '90.
It is also noteworthy that Martinez was not among the league
leaders in hit batsmen last season. Gone are those wild and
crazy days of 1994 and '95 when Martinez was acquiring a
reputation as a headhunter by hitting a total of 22 batters in
two seasons, leading to three bench-clearing brawls and 12
player ejections in '94 alone. His pitches hit only three
batters last season, though when the Phillies' Mike Williams
threw at him twice on Sept. 24 in retaliation for hitting Gregg
Jefferies, Martinez charged the mound and was suspended for
eight games, including Montreal's first seven this year. At
week's end he had plunked three batters this season. "Two years
ago Pedro was a dangerous pitcher, a guy who threw at hitters
above the belt and could break a guy's hand or, worse, his
chin," says Giants second baseman Jeff Kent. "Now his control is
better, and hitters have to respect his right to pitch inside
because he has proved himself."
Martinez hasn't altered his aggressive approach, but he has
fine-tuned his aim. "Pedro still pitches inside like he always
did, but in the past he would lose his temper sometimes and
overthrow, and that's when he hit people," says Martinez's older
brother, Ramon, a two-time All-Star pitcher for the Dodgers.
"I've told him to try to stay calm when things go badly. I think
he listened, but it's hard to be sure, because he hasn't been in
trouble much this season."
After serving his suspension this year, Martinez made his first
start on April 15. He wasn't exactly rusty, giving up just three
hits and striking out five in a 7-5 defeat of the Astros. In
that game Martinez began a string of 28 1/3 innings without
allowing an earned run, and he didn't yield more than two earned
runs in his 13 starts between last Aug. 24 and May 13. "It's
reaching the point where if Pedro gives up two or three runs in
a game, people ask, 'What went wrong?'" Expos catcher Darrin
Fletcher says. "He's been so tough that the same veteran hitters
who used to try to intimidate him are now intimidated by him."
Coming into this season, his fifth in the majors, Martinez was
only 25 and had already produced a 48-31 record, for a .608
winning percentage. As a point of comparison, the Braves' Greg
Maddux was 61-53 (.535) at that age. And Martinez believes that
he is still improving with every start. "There is no secret
formula for my success, except that I am getting older and more
experienced," says Martinez. "The path of my career is just like
raising a kid: You teach him and teach him, and then one day he
becomes a man."
After an 8-7 defeat of the Mariners on Sunday, the Orioles were
almost halfway through a stretch of their schedule during which
they play 16 games in seven cities--Oakland (two), Anaheim
(two), Seattle (three), Baltimore (two), Cleveland (three), New
York (two) and Detroit (two)--in only 18 days. The Tigers are
already dreading a July road swing that features four games in
New York, then two in Boston, two in Anaheim and three in Texas
without a day off. The Giants were scheduled to take six more
plane trips than they took a year ago. "This year's schedule is
a disaster," says Philadelphia pitcher Curt Schilling. "You get
into a city at 2 a.m., play that night, play the next day and
you're gone. We just had eight flights in 18 days. It's tough
for guys to get their bearings when you travel like that."
The convoluted '97 schedule is one of the by-products of the
introduction of interleague play. Seattle has 28 two-game series
scheduled this season, up from just seven a year ago. West
Division teams such as the Mariners suffer most under the new
system, because those teams chose to play eight two-game series
against their counterparts in the other league. Teams in the
East and Central Divisions, each of which has five members, play
five three-game interleague sets.
Not only does the two-game series produce exhausting travel, but
it could also alter the game's competitive balance. "I don't
like the two-game series because there may be seasons when you
only face another team's Number 1 and Number 2 starters, while
you have to go with your Number 4 and 5," says Reds general
manager Jim Bowden.
Many Dodgers players are so annoyed with the '97 schedule that
they insist they will not support interleague play, now only a
two-year experiment, unless the format is changed. "The travel
is tough enough without all of these two-game series," says L.A.
veteran closer Todd Worrell. "We're moving through time zones
like Buck Rogers, and that wears on you."
Kansas City trailed Detroit 9-7 in the bottom of the ninth
inning last Thursday night when Royals pinch hitter Johnny Damon
led off with a long drive down the rightfield line that sneaked
inside the foul pole for a home run. Scott Cooper then delivered
a pinch single. When catcher Mike Sweeney came up next, K.C.
manager Bob Boone planned to give him one chance to swing before
putting on the bunt sign. Sweeney's one swing launched the ball
barely inside the leftfield foul pole for a game-winning two-run
homer. With that unlikely thunder, Kansas City grabbed first
place in the American League Central, where they remained tied
with Cleveland at week's end.
This was significant because as Royals go, these guys have been
more screwed up lately than the Windsors. Kansas City has not
reached the playoffs since 1985 and has finished 16 games out of
first, on average, since then. That's why no one was getting too
worked up about the club's lofty standing last week. Or as Boone
put it, "I'd be more excited if this was the first of October."
The Royals have benefited from some overachieving performers. At
week's end journeyman starter Tim Belcher was third in the
league in ERA (2.35), outfielder Bip Roberts owned the league's
third-best batting average (.362) and fill-in closer Hipolito
Pichardo was perfect in six save opportunities. But the biggest
boost had come from shortstop Jay Bell, who was hitting .322,
including a .326 average with runners in scoring position. His
eight home runs and 33 RBIs were both tops among American League
Bell came to Kansas City from Pittsburgh on Dec. 13, 1996, in a
package deal with Jeff King in exchange for third baseman Joe
Randa, lefthander Jeff Granger and two pitching prospects. Bell
was coming off a subpar season in which he was hitting just .219
on Aug. 17. Around that time he made a critical swing adjustment
and began shifting his weight to his back foot early in his
swing to get a little longer look at the pitch. Over the final
37 games he hit .352, finishing with a .250 average, 13 home
runs and a career-high 71 RBIs, and he carried his renewed
confidence into this season.
Bell's prowess at the plate has spawned comparisons between him
and a more prolific Belle--the White Sox' Albert. Bell has
averaged 11 homers and 55 RBIs over the last five seasons, while
Belle has averaged 41 homers and 123 RBIs, yet at week's end
Bell led Belle (six dingers and 31 RBIs) in both categories.
"It's fun to look at all the comparisons, but I know that it's
only a matter of time before Albert blows me away," Bell says.
"It's like living a fantasy, so you have to enjoy it while it
Perhaps the same should be said for the Royals.
A LONG ROAD BACK
Last Friday evening, on the day he was called up from Triple A
Salt Lake City to play in the majors for the first time in more
than two seasons, Twins outfielder Darrin Jackson hit a two-run
double and a grand slam to carry the Minnesota to an 11-5 win
over the Red Sox. It was just the latest in a series of
comebacks for Jackson, who has battled all kinds of adversity in
17 seasons as a professional. Says Jackson, "I guess a game like
that is a good way to win friends with a new team."
Jackson, 33, began his major league career with the Cubs in '85
and later played for the Padres, the Blue Jays, the Mets and the
White Sox before spending the past two seasons in Japan with the
Seibu Lions. Along the way he survived a bout with testicular
cancer in '87 and later suffered through a mysterious and
debilitating loss of weight that ruined his '93 season, which
was split between Toronto and New York. That ailment was
eventually diagnosed as Graves' disease.
Jackson returned to the U.S. this season, signing a minor league
contract with San Francisco in December after he was told he
would have a chance to compete for the starting centerfielder's
job. Three weeks later the Giants signed free-agent
centerfielder Darryl Hamilton to a two-year, $4.5 million
contract. Predictably Jackson ended up as the odd man out, but
he wasn't released by San Francisco until the final day of
spring training, when all the other teams had already set their
Jackson contacted every major league club before hooking on with
the Red Sox for two weeks of extended spring training. The Twins
then offered him a chance to play for Salt Lake City, where he
hit .300 in 19 games before getting called up.
After grounding out in his first at bat, Jackson doubled down
the third base line with the bases loaded in the third inning.
He came up with the bases full again in the fourth and slammed a
3-and-2 pitch from reliever Toby Borland into the leftfield
bleachers. He finished 3 for 5 with a career-high six RBIs.
After the game Twins manager Tom Kelly slipped when he praised
the accomplishments of his new man, Darren Lewis, which is
actually the name of the centerfielder for the White Sox.
Jackson took it all in stride. "It's the best night of my
17-year career," he said. "It's been quite an odyssey, and this
spring I hit rock bottom. But now, no matter what happens, at
least for one night I proved to a lot of people that I can still
play this game."
THE MAGIC PADRE
San Diego's magic number is 45. That's the jersey number of
relief pitcher Doug Bochtler, a part-time magician whose diverse
skills include the ability to make a handkerchief disappear and
to saw a bat in half with a fastball.
At week's end Bochtler had a team-leading 1.42 ERA, and he
attributes part of his success to his familiarity with the art
of deception. First, Bochtler has a convincing changeup that
keeps hitters off stride. And when he does throw what he admits
is a relatively straight and hittable 90-mph fastball, he
disguises his delivery by hiding the ball until the last
possible moment. "When I pitch it's like when I do a magic
trick, and I'm the only one who sees the illusion," Bochtler
says. "To me it's just a stupid trick, but nobody else seems to
Bochtler got serious about magic in 1993, thanks to Mike
Campbell, a teammate at Triple A Las Vegas. He has since created
an entire act of card tricks, levitations and assorted pranks
that he regularly performs at local churches and schools to
teach people about the dangers of deception. His favorite trick
is one in which he appears to inhale a matchstick into his nose,
an illusion he demonstrated last year on an episode of This Week
in Baseball. A few weeks later, when the Braves visited San
Diego, Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke wouldn't let Bochtler
leave the field during batting practice until he revealed how
the trick was done. After the game that night Lemke repeatedly
taunted teammate Jeff Blauser with the same disgusting trick.
Still, Bochtler admits that hocus-pocus will only take him so
far when he's in the late innings of a close ball game. That
point was hammered home last season when Bochtler pitched
himself into a jam, prompting coach Dan Warthen to visit the
mound. "If you're such a good magician," Warthen told his
pitcher, "why don't you make the next hitter disappear?"
LOST IN PACE
Through Sunday the Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. was on pace to hit
75 home runs this season and to break the major league record
with 198 RBIs. Baseball fans were on pace to read the words "on
pace" 9,628 times. Before folks begin hyperventilating over
these titillating projections, they would do well to remember
that no single-season major league record in any significant
hitting category--and that includes batting average, home runs,
RBIs, slugging percentage, runs, hits, singles, doubles,
triples, walks and total bases--has been broken since Roger
Maris set the home run record in 1961. Further, it should be
noted that during his monumental '61 season, Maris hit exactly
one home run in April.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT JORDAN LEVY Martinez is not as dangerous to hitters as he used to be, but he's even more effective. [Pedro Martinez pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT JORDAN LEVY In early '97 Bell has been the American League's top-hitting shortstop. [Jay Bell batting]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Bochtler has worked his magic on and off the mound. [Doug Bochtler with tongue pierced by skewer]