PULLING UP THE RED SOX
With two studs, a use-'em-all roster and gut feel, skipper Jimy
Williams has Boston on top
The Red Sox trailed the Indians 1-0 in the eighth at Jacobs Field
last Saturday with their number 9 hitter, rookie Trot Nixon, at
the plate, a runner at first and no outs. Boston had touched
starter Bartolo Colon for only three hits, and conventional
wisdom, coupled with Nixon's .243 average, dictated that Red Sox
manager Jimy Williams scream, "Bunt!" from the dugout. Asked
after the game why he let Nixon swing away, Williams drawled,
"Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't."
It was a typical Williams hunch play--"He manages from his heart,"
says Boston first baseman Mike Stanley--and like most of the moves
he has made this year, it worked: Nixon doubled and, four batters
later, scored on Nomar Garciaparra's three-run homer, which would
give Boston a 4-2 victory. Another 4-2 win on Sunday completed a
three-game Sox sweep and a 17-day stretch during which Boston
went 12-4 against the Blue Jays, Yankees and Indians and emerged
with a half-game lead in the American League East.
The Red Sox, who were expected to have tumbled by now into the
power and leadership hole left by Mo Vaughn's departure, have
ascended behind a dominating rotation and solid defense. Led by
ace righthander Pedro Martinez (10-1, 2.01 ERA through Sunday),
Boston's starters led the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts and
fewest walks allowed. The Red Sox had hit only 45 homers, the
league's second-lowest total, but they had pecked away at
opposing pitchers by putting the ball in play--Boston had at
least 10 hits in 21 of its 28 games in May.
Mostly, though, the Red Sox have thrived because Williams has
coaxed as much out of a largely starless lineup as any skipper
east of Dusty Baker. He has shuffled a roster full of role
players in and out of the lineup around Garciaparra (5 for 11
with four homers and eight RBIs in Cleveland), getting everyone
enough at bats to stay sharp. "Some are going to play more than
others, but I don't think we have utility players," Williams
says. "I'm going to play them all."
Sounds simple, unless your team features three DH-first basemen,
three weak-hitting outfielders for two spots and no reliable
power source apart from Garciaparra. Williams rotates
lefthanded-hitting Brian Daubach and Reggie Jefferson and righty
Mike Stanley in the first base and DH spots; through Sunday that
trio was hitting a combined .304 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs.
Williams had gotten respectable production--55 runs and 37
RBIs--plus excellent defense from various permutations of Nixon,
Darren Lewis and Damon Buford in center and right. "Nobody here
can say they go very long without at bats," says Stanley.
Williams also keeps everyone awake by managing more by feel than
by computer, as he did in letting Nixon swing away against Colon.
On May 17 he let Daubach, a rookie with two career at bats
against lefthanders at the time, hit against Blue Jays southpaw
Graeme Lloyd with two outs and two men on in the ninth inning of
a 4-4 game. Daubach hit a three-run homer to key Boston's 8-7
win. "I'm slowly learning that Jimy's not afraid to surprise you
with a few things," says Nixon.
Like having the Red Sox in first place.
When Mets lefthander Al Leiter won his start against the Brewers
on May 20, it was his first victory in a month--but something
still wasn't right. Pitching for weeks with strained ligaments in
his left knee, Leiter, a 17-game winner in 1998, had struggled to
a 2-4 record with a 6.38 ERA, and now he felt pain in his left
biceps. Leiter told manager Bobby Valentine, who responded by
settling down for a Blockbuster night with his ace and pitching
coach Bob Apodaca. "Video is huge," says Apodaca. "It's a set of
eyes that can see all."
Leiter's case is a perfect illustration of why videotape has
become as helpful to managers as it long has been to their
football and basketball counterparts. By studying tape of
Leiter's starts this year and comparing it with clips of outings
he made last August, when Leiter was mechanically sound and in
the middle of a stretch during which he won seven out of eight
starts, Valentine caught a potentially disastrous flaw. Instead
of kicking up his left leg on his follow-through, as he did last
year, Leiter was favoring his pained knee and dragging his left
leg, thus placing undue strain on his arm.
All teams now use videos to fine-tune their players'
performances and break down their opponents' weaknesses. "This
is the Nintendo generation," says Red Sox pitching coach Joe
Kerrigan, who earlier this season watched tape of righthander
Pat Rapp and noticed that Rapp was tipping his pitches. "Players
can digest more of what they can see, and then we bring them out
and work on things."
Last week Reds slugger Greg Vaughn, disappointed by the quality
of the team's videotaping, shelled out $15,000 for a new video
system that he hopes will be similar to what he had access to
last year while with the Padres. Says Vaughn, "Just as in school,
visual aids can get through to people a lot better than just
telling them something."
BACK IN THE SWIM?
Expos manager Felipe Alou uncharacteristically lost his cool
after his once formidable closer, Ugueth Urbina, was lit up by
the Brewers for three runs on two hits and two walks in the
eighth inning of a 13-4 Montreal loss on May 23. It was the
fourth blown save of the season for Urbina, who failed in just
four of his 38 save opportunities last year, and it left him
with a 5.85 ERA. The 13 runs Urbina allowed in his first 20
appearances this year were three more than he surrendered in his
64 games in 1998. "I've never seen any closer collapse like
that," said Alou at the time. "He has lost his control and his
confidence. I don't know how to handle it."
Alou handled it by using a sink-or-swim strategy, tossing the
25-year-old Urbina into the water again and again until he was
able to paddle back to shore. Urbina capped a busy six days on
Sunday by nailing down a 6-4 Expos' win over the Giants in his
fifth appearance of the week. He saved four of those games and
won another, yielding no runs and striking out six in 6 2/3
innings. By Sunday it appeared that Urbina, who had shaved his
ERA to 4.39 and was fifth in the National League, with 11 saves,
was back in form.
Earlier in the season Urbina seemed to be reluctant to use his
heater, which has been clocked in the high 90s, and was throwing
more breaking pitches. He looked uncomfortable on the mound, too.
"He had an air of invincibility," one National League scout said
early last week. "Now he's sweating, fidgeting and flipping his
hat up and down."
When Urbina did throw the fastball, he had trouble locating it
high in the strike zone. By last weekend, however, that
command--and the courage to throw high heat in tight
situations--had returned. Urbina struck out Giants shortstop Rich
Aurilia to end last Saturday's game, and on Sunday he blew away
Charlie Hayes and Jeff Kent with two runners on to preserve
Montreal's victory. "I believe the way to get a stopper back is
to show him that you trust him, that he's your guy," Alou said.
WILL OWNERS TAKE OFFENSE?
In the 15 major league games played last Friday 148 runs were
scored, an average of 9.9 a game. Four teams scored in double
figures; four others put up at least five runs and lost. There
were 40 homers hit, and the Red Sox' Nomar Garciaparra, the White
Sox' Greg Norton and the Cubs' Henry Rodriguez each had two
dingers--and Friday wasn't even one of the gaudiest offensive days
of the season.
When baseball's owners meet in Pittsburgh on June 9 and 10,
several important topics--the disparity between financial haves
and have-nots, revenue sharing, the sorry state of the
Expos--figure to be on the agenda. The bosses should include
another subject: the offensive explosion that helped draw fans
back to ballparks after the labor strife of four years ago but
has now gotten out of hand.
Through Sunday games were producing an average of 10.28 runs, a
rate that, if it holds up, would be the highest since 1930.
Roughly a third of the way through the season 40.3% of the
pitchers who had thrown at least 25 innings had ERAs of 5.00 or
higher; during last year's homerfest 28.6% of pitchers with a
similar workload--80-plus innings over the full season--had an ERA
of 5.00 or more. (Compare those figures with, say, those of '92,
when only 9.0% of ERAs were that high.) Already there had been
140 games in which a team had scored in double figures, a rate of
19.1%. There were 390 such games (16.0%) in '98.
"All of the polls that Major League Baseball takes show that fans
want to see home runs and fans want to see offense," says Reds
general manager Jim Bowden. That may be true in the case of epic
home run races or the occasional 8-7 slugfest, but few fans have
the stomach to sit through massacres like the Giants' 17-1
bashing of the Cardinals on May 25. If baseball is serious in its
search for ways to shorten games, curbing runaway offense is a
logical place to start.
Little can be done about two of the forces behind the run-up in
runs, namely expansion-diluted pitching and new hitter-friendly
ballparks. However, three areas can be addressed:
--Enforce the strike zone--once and for all. Umpires were asked
this winter to call higher strikes and stop extending the zone
beyond the corners of the plate. They've fulfilled half the
request by taking away off-the-plate strikes but have failed to
call pitches at the belt. The result? A smaller strike zone and
one that frames the wheelhouse of low-ball hitters like Ken
Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
--Tune down the ball, which is jumpier than ever. Says Reds
manager Jack McKeon, "The ball seems to be tighter wound, and the
seams aren't as high. Pitchers can't get a good grip anymore."
--Raise the mound. Thirty years ago, after pitchers dominated the
1968 season, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to its current
10 inches. Offense surged by more than a run per game in '69.
General managers have discussed raising the mound--to perhaps 12
inches--to cut scoring and also to protect the tender arms that
have been rushed to the majors as a result of expansion. "A
higher mound means pitchers can throw on more of a down angle,
and that places less strain on the arm," says Giants general
manager Brian Sabean. "If you raise the mound, you get more
parity in the game and, in all likelihood, fewer arm problems,
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Garciaparra is as slick at short as he is at the plate, where he has produced 10 homers and 40 RBIs.
COLOR PHOTO: MARC BAPTISTE Clobbered closer Urbina worked his way back.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. A higher mound, like Bob Gibson's in 1968, could help tame offenses.
THE HOT CORNER
Think Tigers rookie righthander Jeff Weaver, who through Sunday
was 6-3 with a 2.89 ERA, including five wins following Detroit
losses, has made an impression on Frank Thomas? "He has electric
s---," the Big Hurt said after going 1 for 4 and striking out
twice against Weaver in the Tigers' 10-5 defeat of the White Sox
last Thursday. "My first time up [when Thomas was caught
looking], I was overmatched."...
The curse on the Mets' young pitchers continues: 26-year-old
righthander Jason Isringhausen's comeback from his January 1998
elbow surgery hit another snag--he missed a start last Saturday
with soreness and torn scar tissue in the elbow--and last week
22-year-old Korean righthander Jae Weong Seo (2-0, with a 1.84
ERA for Class A St. Lucie) underwent Tommy John surgery....
Since taking over as the Marlins' starting centerfielder on May
20, Preston Wilson had hit .462 with four home runs in 10 games
through Sunday, and he led all rookies with 11 homers for the
On June 7, in honor of first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, the
Twins will sell a lower deck general admission ticket for $1
(instead of the usual $8) to any fan with 12 or more letters in
his or her last name....
The Mariners next play the Twins in a three-game series
beginning on July 23, which means ball hawks should buy their
outfield seats at the Metrodome right now. The Mariners have hit
23 homers off Minnesota pitching in six games this season, just
one short of the Seattle record against one opponent for a
season, which was set in 11 games....
Indians righthander Dwight Gooden on the accuracy of pitch
speeds posted on ballpark scoreboards: "They're tuned up a
little bit. If everybody's throwing so hard, why are so many
guys yanking the ball out of the park?"...
The Reds' Greg Vaughn isn't using it as an excuse for his woeful
batting average (.205), but he's playing with a strained
abdominal muscle that makes it difficult for him to even pull on
a pair of pants. The injury keeps him from planting his front
foot when he strides, meaning his swing is completely powered by
his arms and upper body. "I've been playing with it for a month
and a half," says Vaughn, who had missed just seven games and
had nine homers with 25 RBIs. "It's something that hurts so bad
sometimes that it's even hard for me to sit."...
In 1997 and '98 Braves switch-hitter Chipper Jones hit three
home runs in 377 at bats against lefthanders. Through Sunday he
already had six in 54 at bats this season....
Someone should tell Tony Gwynn that he has earned the right to
take it easy while on the disabled list. Last week Gwynn, who
didn't want to fly for fear it would aggravate his strained left
calf, drove roughly 350 miles from his home in San Diego to
Phoenix for the Padres' three-game series against the
In Nike TV spots bat-wielding pitchers tell each other that
"chicks dig the long ball," but how do women feel about a high
average? With hurlers from both leagues hauling lumber as
interleague play starts this week, it's an opportune time to find
out. Here are the best hitters among active pitchers (minimum 170
career at bats).
PITCHER, TEAM AT BATS HITS AVERAGE
1. Allen Watson, Mets 175 45 .257
This year's .300 is good but not
even close to career-high .417
(15 for 36) for Cardinals in 1995
2. Omar Olivares, Angels 208 49 .236
Another former Card, had two of 23
career RBIs for Mariners in
1997 interleague play
3. Todd Stottlemyre, Diamondbacks 194 44 .227
Better average than father, Mel
(.160), but Pop had more pop
(seven homers to none)
4. Orel Hershiser, Mets 760 157 .207
Hit .356 with six RBIs for Dodgers
in 1993; has batted only .217
with six RBIs since
5. Tom Glavine, Braves 789 159 .202
1,512 fewer at bats but just one less
homer (one) and 82 fewer RBIs (60)
than shortstop Rafael Belliard
6. Mark Portugal, Red Sox 447 89 .199
Last year batted .260 with five
doubles for the Phillies
T7. Mike Hampton, Astros 250 49 .196
Other Houston starters rival
Atlanta's on mound but not at plate
(Jose Lima, .139; Shane Reynolds, .156)
T7. Dwight Gooden, Indians 736 144 .196
A free-swinger, has whiffed 133 times;
most impressive stat: five triples
9. Greg Swindell, Diamondbacks 242 46 .190
Had 33 sacrifice bunts in five years
with Astros and Reds
10. Rheal Cormier, Red Sox 184 34 .185
Not much long-ball power here:
29 of his 34 hits are singles
IN THE BOX
May 29, 1999
White Sox 7, Tigers 1
It's one of pitching's golden rules: If you want to win, don't
give up a lot of walks. Before last Saturday's start in Detroit,
Chicago righthander James Baldwin, who went 13-6 in 1998, got the
message. In his last six starts he'd issued bases on balls to 22
batters, including 11 in the past 5 2/3 innings. The result: no
wins and a 7.76 ERA since April 18 and a 2-4 record and 6.36 ERA
After working with pitching coach Nardi Contreras to correct an
overstride in his delivery, Baldwin went back to basics on
Saturday, throwing strikes--he went to a three-ball count on only
one of the 31 hitters he faced--and walking no one. Result: the
first nine-inning complete game of Baldwin's five-year career.
"This is what happens when you throw strikes," Baldwin said
afterward. He's learning.