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Underexposed Save opportunities are few and far between for Montreal's Ugueth Urbina

Ugueth Urbina, the meticulous Expos closer, has done more for
the rolled-up sleeve than anyone since James Dean. The only
thing missing from Urbina's sleeve-turning ritual on the mound
is a pack of Lucky Strikes, though his strikes with a 97-mph
fastball and equally nasty slider are hardly lucky for opposing
batters. Urbina throws them with an exaggerated follow-through
and a bare right biceps. "He looks like an old third baseman,
Eddie Mathews or someone, with that biceps showing," says
Montreal manager Felipe Alou. Other National League managers and
players have been less tolerant of the naked gun, riding him
from the dugout when he rolls up his sleeve. Urbina shrugs. He
swears the purpose of his sleeveless look is not vanity but
comfort--or, as the French say, feeling good in his skin.

Urbina needs the exposure. Being a closer right now in Montreal
is like being a chimney sweep in Phoenix--it's a noble calling
but one not frequently in demand. Through Sunday the Expos had
just 39 wins in 97 games, but with his 4-2 record and 23 saves,
Urbina had had a hand in 27 of the victories (69.2%), the
highest percentage of any pitcher in the majors. Urbina also had
struck out 56 in 42 1/3 innings, had a 1.28 ERA and had allowed
opposing batters to hit just .164 against him. His pitches are
not only hard to hit, especially since he began throwing his
slider to lefthanded batters this season, but are also tough to
catch. At this year's All-Star Game, Braves' catcher Javy Lopez
was handcuffed so badly by Urbina's pitches that he looked as if
he were in Williamsport instead of in Denver.

"I can't say if he's the best [closer] because he doesn't get the
opportunities," says Alou, who gave Urbina the job when Mel
Rojas signed with the Cubs as a free agent after the '96 season.
"He might not have to throw for five days. He pitches here
without incentive. But what he has done for us is incredible. In
the right place, he could get 60 saves." However, Montreal seems
like the right place to Urbina, who had 27 saves last year. In
March he signed a three-year, $6.4 million contract, becoming
one of the core players on the eternally rebuilding Expos, whose
owners keep gutting the franchise in order to save it.

Four years ago Urbina's life hit its low point. On May 8, 1994,
his Double A Harrisburg Senators manager, Dave Jauss, knocked on
his motel door. Urbina, who had been pitching poorly as a
starter, thought he was being demoted to Class A. Instead Jauss
told him that his father, Juan Manuel, had been shot and killed
while being robbed at his home in Caracas, Venezuela. Urbina
remained so bitter about his father's murder that for the next
few years he seemed ready to fight the whole world.

"I was 20 years old when my father was killed, and I had to grow
up too quickly," Urbina says. "When I went home for the funeral,
I told my mother I would never come back to play baseball. She
would always tell me that my father's dream was for me to be in
the big leagues. Every time I reach a goal, I wish he could have
seen it. Sometimes it looks like I'm angry on the mound, but
that's the way I pitch [best]. I never want to lose that
attitude when I pitch."

--Michael Farber

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [Ugueth Urbina pitching]