Easier Does It
Still intense, but not so tense, the Angels' Darin Erstad is on
a hot streak
As Darin Erstad prepared to step into the cage for batting
practice at Comiskey Park last Saturday morning, a fan behind
home plate shouted, "Hey, Darin! I added you to my fantasy team
"Last night?" answered Erstad, who was first in the American
League in hitting (.472) and second in on-base percentage (.509)
through Sunday. "Good thing it wasn't last year."
Indeed. Erstad spent 1999 in a slump, finishing with career lows
in average (.253), home runs (13) and RBIs (53), and a career
high in strikeouts (101). "Pitchers flat-out used me last year,"
says Erstad, the first player taken in the '95 draft and an
All-Star in '98. "I was terrible."
Plus, in past years Erstad was generally in no mood for pregame
chitchat. "Right before BP, Darin starts to dial himself in,"
says Angels shortstop Gary DiSarcina. "Everybody leaves him
"I get in my own little world," admits Erstad, "but I'm getting
better, making an effort to be more open, to talk to my
If his fast start at the plate--through Sunday he had hit safely
in all but one of the Angels' games--wasn't indication enough,
Erstad's relative joviality confirmed that he has rebounded from
a nightmarish year and a half. His slump began late in 1998; he
hit .313 with 18 home runs and an on-base percentage of .362
before the All-Star break that season but sank to .260, one and
.335 in the second half. The slide continued last year, and the
longer it went on, the more tense he got. "There wasn't one day
that I felt comfortable at the plate," says Erstad, a
leftfielder who played much of the year with hamstring and knee
injuries. "I wasn't running well, and when my game's not at full
speed, everything feels off."
Erstad arrived in camp this year armed with videotapes of his at
bats at Nebraska--where he was an All-America and set a school
record for career hits--and sat down with Anaheim's new hitting
coach, Mickey Hatcher. "Spring training was the first time Mickey
saw my swing, and if I was doing something wrong, I didn't want
him to think, Oh, that's how this guy hits," says Erstad. "Those
tapes show how I looked when I felt comfortable."
Hatcher helped Erstad simplify his swing and got him to wave the
bat below his waist before the pitcher delivers, which keeps him
from tensing at the plate. "Last year he was thinking about too
many things," says Hatcher, who likens Erstad's intensity to that
of his former Dodgers teammate Kirk Gibson. "One day his stride,
the next day his hands, the next day something else. I told him
this year there'd be no tinkering after spring training."
"My problem is that I get too fired up, like I'm playing
football," says Erstad, who was a punter and placekicker for the
Cornhuskers' 1994 national championship team. "I decided after
last season that this isn't life and death, that the only person
I have to prove something to is myself."
Further easing his mind is his solid claim on Anaheim's leadoff
spot. Because of injuries and lineup-shuffling Erstad bounced up
and down the lineup last season, getting at least 20 at bats in
five spots. New manager Mike Scioscia told him in spring training
that the No. 1 position would be his all season. "I heard that
last year this guy never smiled," says Hatcher. "This year at
least he's smiled a couple of times."
Marks of Friendship
Sometimes, everybody goes home happy. Rangers righthander Mark
Clark and Indians slugger Jim Thome, who became close friends
when they were Cleveland teammates from 1993 through '95, went
out to dinner last Friday night; naturally, Clark's next day
start against the Indians at Jacobs Field was a topic of
conversation. Thome, who had been stuck on 199 career homers for
24 at bats, mentioned how badly he wanted his 200th. Clark, who
went 3-7 with an 8.60 ERA in 15 starts for Texas last year before
an elbow injury ended his season, mentioned how badly he wanted
to win and get off to a 2-0 start. "I had to tell him, 'I don't
want you to hit your home run,'" says Clark.
Leading 6-1 in the sixth inning, Clark ran into trouble with one
out and two on and Thome coming to the plate. "I tried not to
look at him," Thome says, "because I knew I'd start laughing."
Thome hammered Clark's first-pitch fastball into the leftfield
bleachers, cutting Texas's lead to 6-4 and sending Clark to the
showers. Three relievers closed the door, however, and three
innings later Clark was celebrating a win, his second in two
starts against Cleveland since the Indians traded him in 1996.
"He'll hate that he hung a pitch to me, and that's something we
can talk about in the hunting blind," says Thome, who with that
homer is now 1 for 5 in his career against Clark. "Still, they
won the game."
Three Parks Debut
Of New Homes And Homers
By Monday this year's new stadiums had each hosted two series,
and the Tigers' Comerica Park, the Astros' Enron Field and the
Giants' Pacific Bell Park had begun to exhibit personalities
distinctly different from their predecessors'. The most glaring
change was in Houston, where fans accustomed to baseball
Astrodome-style received a crash course in how the game is played
most everywhere else. Twenty-four homers flew out of Enron in its
first six games; it took 18 games--until May 11--for that many to
be hit at the Astrodome last year. "Houston's a joke," said Cubs
manager Don Baylor last week. Added Mark McGwire, "You have to
play it like Coors or Fenway--no lead is ever safe."
As National League hitters salivated at the thought of playing
at Enron, shell-shocked American League pitchers were circling
dates at Comerica Park like prisoners anticipating parole. No
home runs were hit in Comerica's first three games; there hadn't
been three games without a dinger at Tiger Stadium since August
1997. A park hadn't opened with at least three homerless games
since Cleveland's cavernous Municipal Stadium debuted in 1932
The new digs already have the Tigers talking about reinventing
themselves. Righthander Brian Moehler, who started Detroit's
home-opening win over the Mariners, says he threw strikes without
fear, confident the ball wouldn't leave the yard. Says Tigers
general manager Randy Smith, "What we will see here is pure
baseball, in which everything matters--hitting the cutoff man,
bunts, defense. It will be baseball the way it was meant to be."
In San Francisco fans raved about the views and the
no-parka-required weather at PacBell Park, but the stadium
inspired no confidence in the Giants, who were swept by the
Dodgers and the Diamondbacks on their first home stand. "I'll be
glad when things get back to normal after this week, but I don't
know if it ever will be normal as we knew it," said Giants
manager Dusty Baker late last week. "It'll be a new normal."
Injuries in the Pen
Closing the Closing Gap
It's no fun opening without a closer. This year three teams, the
Diamondbacks, Orioles and Phillies, found themselves in that
unenviable position, scrambling when their closers went down with
injuries late in spring training or in the season's first week.
Here's how they've been coping.
--Diamondbacks, Matt Mantei. With 22 saves in 25 chances for
Arizona in 1999, Mantei was a godsend after he was acquired from
the Marlins last July; with him on the disabled list with biceps
tendinitis, Arizona's savior this year has been 40-year-old Mike
Morgan (chart, left). Morgan, who had three career saves when the
season started, was 3 for 3 in save opportunities through Sunday
and hadn't walked a batter in nine innings. More important, his
effectiveness kept the Diamondbacks from having to add a 12th
pitcher to the roster before Mantei's return, which could come
--Phillies, Mike Jackson. When the newly signed Jackson was put on
the disabled list with a strained shoulder in the first week of
the season, manager Terry Francona turned--again--to Wayne Gomes.
When Jeff Brantley, who was supposed to be the closer in 1999,
got hurt last April and spent most of the season on the DL, Gomes
stepped in and led the Phillies with 19 saves. This year he had
pitched in six of Philadelphia's 11 games and was perfect in four
save chances. "We need Jackson [who's expected back by the end of
the month]," says Francona, "but if Gomesy pitches well, that
makes us a better team."
--Orioles, Mike Timlin. The loss of Timlin, who suffered an
abdominal tear late in spring training that put him on the shelf
until this week, set off a disastrous domino effect in
Baltimore's bullpen. With setup man Mike Trombley forced into
the closer's role, the Orioles were caught shorthanded in the
middle innings. In four straight losses to the Royals and the
Twins last week Baltimore relievers gave up 16 earned runs in 8
2/3 innings and were charged with all four defeats (including a
blown save by Trombley). "We've played well enough to be 8-1,"
said manager Mike Hargrove after a 6-5 loss to K.C. last
Thursday left Baltimore 5-4, "but I still have faith in our
April 26: Cubs at Astros
Sammy Sosa takes his whacks at Enron Field, where the cozy
dimensions and a favorite victim could produce fireworks. As of
Monday righthander Jose Lima was scheduled to start the second
game of the series for Houston. Sammy has hit Lima for a .292
average. More ominous, given Enron's emerging rep as a launching
pad, four of Sosa's seven hits off Lima have been home runs.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis
from Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT With a simplified swing and secure in the leadoff spot, Erstad had 25 hits in his first 12 games.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT WACHTER
the HOT corner
It's a tired debate, but yet another home run explosion--an
average of 2.6 per game had been hit through Sunday; last year's
record total (5,528 homers) was achieved at a pace of 2.3--again
has fueled talk that the ball is juiced. Padres pitching coach
Dave Smith compared some of this year's balls with some from
1999. "These balls are more solid than what we had last year,"
Smith says. One American League hitting coach agrees: "Instead
of aluminum bats we have aluminum balls."...
The Mariners have the second-lowest team ERA (3.91 at week's
end) in the American League and more help is on the way.
Lefthander Ryan (Little Unit) Anderson--who's 6'11" and only
20-years-old--struck out 20 in 11 2/3 innings and allowed three
hits in his first two starts at Triple A Tacoma....
The Indians' players are taking not-so-veiled shots at former
manager Mike Hargrove, now skipper of the Orioles. "Charlie's
great," Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel said last week, referring
to new Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel. "It seems like we have
more freedom this year. Last year it seemed like you were always
Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez was criticized last week by manager
Bobby Valentine for a lack of offense (.143 average); he also
had already made four errors, the same number he had all last
The Angels think righthander Ramon Ortiz, 23, can continue to
pitch with a slight tear of the labrum in his right shoulder,
but they plan to watch him closely. "There will be no
compromising our future for our needs right now," says manager
in the BOX
April 12, 2000
Yankees 8, Rangers 6
So much for the theory that stocking up on southpaws is the way
to beat New York. Three Texas lefthanders--starter Darren Oliver
and relievers Mike Munoz and Mike Venafro--were pounded for 13
hits and seven runs in five innings and coughed up leads of 2-0
and 6-5 in the loss. The seventh inning was especially brutal.
Munoz gave up a leadoff single to lefthanded-hitting Paul
O'Neill and, two batters later, a two-run triple to Tino
Martinez, another lefty. Later in the inning manager Johnny
Oates brought in Venafro to face lefthanded Ricky Ledee, who
ripped an RBI single.
Opponents rearranging rotations to throw southpaws at the
Yankees, take note: New York faced six lefthanded starters in
its first 10 games and went 3-3, and through Sunday the Yankees'
lineup was more effective against lefties (.289) than righties
Coming Back for More
On April 5 righthander Mike Morgan added to his big league
record by pitching for his 12th team, throwing four shutout
innings in relief for the Diamondbacks. A 13-game winner mostly
as a starter last year for the Rangers, Morgan has filled in for
injured Arizona closer Matt Mantei, getting three saves in three
outings. Maybe Morgan, 40, who had a total of three saves
entering the season, should have tried closing earlier in his
20-year career. He's the big leagues' active leader in losses
(180); only six other pitchers have finished more games under
.500 than the 46 Morgan was through Sunday. Here are the active
pitchers (minimum 50 starts) with the longest way to go to even
their career records. --David Sabino
PITCHER, TEAM RECORD* BELOW .500 SKINNY
Mike Morgan, 134-180 46 Only one postseason, with 1998
Diamondbacks Cubs (two relief appearances
for 1 1/3 innings)
Willie Blair, 49-76 27 Followed a 16-8 season in
Tigers 1997 with combined 8-27
in '98 and '99
LaTroy Hawkins, 26-45 19 Won just 17 of 66 starts
Twins over past two seasons;
relegated to pen in 2000
Ricky Bones, 57-75 18 Went 10-9 for Brewers in
Marlins 1994--his only winning season
Paul Quantrill, 39-57 18 Had first winning record (3-2)
Blue Jays in 1999 after recovering from
*All statistics through Sunday