Expected to be one of the Rangers' strong points, their relief
corps has been absorbing a Texas-sized pounding
Even in these offense-happy times, the Rangers' 17-16 victory
over the A's last Friday was a novelty--unless you count the
combustible performance of the Texas relievers. At the start of
the sixth inning manager Johnny Oates called on lefthander Matt
Perisho to protect a 7-5 lead. Perisho walked the bases loaded
and then surrendered a bases-clearing double to Ben Grieve. Over
the next 1 2/3 innings the brushfire swelled into a four-alarm
conflagration: Perisho gave up four more hits and seven more
runs, and was only spared a loss when Texas pulled off the
biggest comeback in franchise history. His successor,
righthander Jeff Zimmerman, allowed a solo homer in his inning
"Sometimes a manager has to put glue on the seat of his pants to
keep from going out to the mound after every hitter," Oates said
later. "We had only one guy who could give us innings tonight,
and that was Perisho."
Bullpens are fickle beasts, a lesson Oates, if he didn't know it
already, is learning this season. The Texas relief corps, thought
to be a Rangers strength when the season began, had seven losses
and coughed up six save chances in Texas's first 29 games,
figures it didn't reach until its 90th (losses) and 79th (blown
saves) games last season. Through Sunday the pen had a 3-7
record, only three saves and the American League's third-highest
ERA (6.10). First batters faced by the relievers were hitting a
brisk .365. "I try not to compare this year to last," says
Zimmerman. "Last year is over."
Especially for him. A rookie last year, Zimmerman went 8-0 with a
0.86 ERA and one save in the first half and was an American
League All-Star, but he then tailed off down the stretch and has
been ineffective this season. Through Sunday he was 0-4 with a
6.92 ERA and, having blown games on everything from a walk-off
homer to a ninth-inning balk, was seemingly inventing ways to
lose. On May 4 against the Devil Rays, Zimmerman struck out the
leadoff hitter in the 11th inning but grooved a slider to Greg
Vaughn, who whacked it for a game-winning homer. Against the A's
last Friday he retired the first two hitters he faced on five
pitches and then left a two-strike slider to Terrence Long
hanging over the plate. It too ended up in the seats, for the
fifth home run Zimmerman had given up this season. "Last year was
almost a curse," he says. "Everything came so easy in the first
half, I didn't have to make adjustments. I just got the sign and
threw. Now there's a little more involved."
Zimmerman hasn't been the only culprit in Texas's meltdown.
Sidearming lefthander Mike Venafro, who sparkled as a setup man
last year, missed most of spring training with a strained
ligament in his left index finger and has struggled to catch up:
He had a 4.66 ERA, and lefthanded batters were hitting .348
against him. With Mike Munoz on the disabled list (elbow
tendinitis), Perisho is the only other lefty in the pen, and
lefthanded hitters were 9 for 15 against him.
Things are no better from the right side. Righthander Tim
Crabtree's 9.20 ERA was the second highest (minimum 10 innings)
in the American League; he had allowed 23 hits in 142/3 innings.
Closer John Wetteland had all three of the Rangers' saves and a
4.50 ERA, but he had already blown three saves, just four fewer
than he did all of last year. Only rookie righthander Francisco
Cordero (1.69 ERA in 12 appearances), acquired in the trade that
sent slugger Juan Gonzalez to the Tigers, has performed well.
Across the board the missing ingredient has been command. Texas
relievers hadn't been issuing an inordinate number of walks (40
in 79 2/3 innings), but they were leaving pitches in fat parts of
the strike zone. Hence, they'd given up a startling 105 hits.
"Everyone goes through stretches when the hangers get whacked and
the good pitches get fouled off," says Rangers pitching coach
Dick Bosman. "Everyone starts questioning his ability, especially
guys with little experience, wondering if they belong."
Oates insists he'll let his bullpen work out of its skid. "I'd
rather be accused of being too patient than try to make a change
too quickly," he says. "We're not going to win without them."
Lord of Discipline
Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood
Frank Robinson, baseball's new discipline czar, has sent a
message. On April 27 he handed down 82 games in suspensions and
$21,000 in fines to combatants in the Tigers-White Sox melee five
days earlier. Then on May 3 he suspended Red Sox pitcher Pedro
Martinez for five games for plunking the Indians' Roberto Alomar
on April 30.
Robinson's point? That beanball wars and bench-clearing brawls
will no longer be tolerated. "They're cracking down," says
Detroit third baseman Dean Palmer, who was banned for eight games
and fined $3,000 for his role in the dustup with Chicago. "If
they're going to give Pedro [five games] for what went on, I
guess they're pretty serious."
There's no question that the well-respected Robinson, a
hard-nosed player in his day and a Hall of Famer, lends
credibility to the discipline process, which in the past was
handled by the league presidents. "I like guys who have been in
the same shoes making decisions for me," says Astros first
baseman Jeff Bagwell. Still, the harsh penalties have caught many
players and managers off guard, and have raised the question of
whether baseball, like the NHL and NBA, needs to codify its
punishments for violent behavior. "It should be like hockey,
where they automatically hit the third man in," says A's manager
Robinson's handling of the Chicago-Detroit mess, one of the
ugliest brawls in recent years, and of the Martinez flap, in
which one player from each team was hit by a pitch and benches
cleared twice but no punches were thrown, was swift, firm--and
inconsistent. For example, Palmer, who rushed the field for a
second round of brawling after having been ejected in an earlier
scrape, received the same suspension as managers Jerry Manuel and
Phil Garner, who were on the field as peacekeepers. "Palmer
should have gotten a month," says one American League manager.
"Everybody knows if you've been ejected, you can't come back on
Martinez's punishment highlights the discrepancy between
disciplining starting pitchers and every-day players. Martinez,
who dropped his appeal of his penalty after pitching last
Saturday, began serving his suspension the next day, meaning he
could take his turn in the rotation on Friday, with an extra day
of rest. Says the Yankees' Tino Martinez, "If a position player
has to miss five games, a starter should have to miss three, four
or five starts."
It's unrealistic to think a new discipline code would eliminate
brushbacks and fighting; as Giants manager Dusty Baker says, "The
death penalty hasn't stopped people from killing." Yet
standardized punishments--say, an automatic five games for a
hitter who rushes the mound and two starts for a pitcher found
guilty of head-hunting--would at least establish fair and definite
consequences for players who lose their cool on the field.
Matt Lawton Stands In
Twins outfielder Matt Lawton, who was hit in the face with a
fastball thrown by Reds lefthander Dennys Reyes last June,
returned to the lineup before the end of July, but his recovery
was only beginning. After sitting out six weeks while his
fractured right eye socket healed, a rattled Lawton struggled in
the season's final two months. "I wasn't reacting to fastballs,
and on any pitch inside, my first movement was back," says
Lawton, 28, who over the winter had recurring nightmares about
being beaned. "I didn't know if I'd ever be the player I was."
It seems he will be. Through Sunday the lefthanded-hitting Lawton
was batting .363 and was tied for first in the American League in
doubles (13) and was third in hits (45). More important, he was
playing without the fear he felt as recently as spring training.
"Being hit, the nightmares, I don't worry about any of that stuff
anymore," says Lawton.
Last season was a fright for Lawton even before the beaning.
After a breakout year in 1998, in which he led Minnesota with 21
home runs, 77 RBIs and 91 runs, he showed up in spring training
having barely swung a bat or worked out all winter. "I thought I
had the game licked and didn't have to work hard in the
off-season," he says. "All of a sudden I couldn't hit."
"Last year he stunk from Day One," says Twins manager Tom Kelly.
Before the beaning Lawton hit .262 with five home runs; after his
return he hit .255 with only two homers in 204 at bats.
This time Lawton took just one week off after the season ended
before starting workouts--hitting, running and lifting weights at
home in Saucier, Miss. When Lawton again struggled early in
spring training, an exasperated Kelly had seen enough. He told
Minnesota coaches Scott Ullger and Paul Molitor, "This kid is
working too hard not to have any results. I don't care if it
takes an hour, two hours or two weeks, get him straightened out."
The coaches shortened Lawton's long stride at the plate, which
had slowed his swing and left him flailing to catch up with
fastballs. They also settled his churning mind, persuading him
not to press if he still felt skittish. "It's natural not to come
back from an injury like that instantly," says Molitor. "He had
to allow himself some patience and failure."
After going 0 for 8 in the season's first two games, Lawton had
hit safely in 27 of his last 30 games through Sunday. More
impressive were the way he was using the whole field--21 of his 45
hits had gone to left--and his .405 average against lefthanders,
both indications that he's not flinching at the plate. On April
20 Kansas City lefty Jose Rosado brushed Lawton back with a
fastball near his head. In his next at bat Lawton homered. One
day later he found himself up against the Rangers' sidearming
southpaw Mike Venafro. "I was like, You have to be kidding me,"
Lawton says. "He came in on me with a pitch, but I lined the next
one into leftfield for a base hit. I thought, Hey, I hung in
Kerry Wood's Return
Re-armed with A New Pitch
"He's the same guy as when he left," Astros second baseman Craig
Biggio said of Kerry Wood on May 2, after the Cubs' righthander
shut down Houston in his first start since undergoing Tommy John
surgery 13 months earlier. Not so: Wood, who gave up one run,
struck out four and walked four in six innings against the
Astros, came back to earth on Sunday against the Pirates, who lit
him up for seven hits and seven runs in 6 2/3 innings. Wood walked
five, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch, and clearly lacked the
command he had in his first outing. "You have to remember, he
hasn't pitched in a year," Cubs catcher Joe Girardi said after
the loss. "To come back after five days with the same velocity
and better breaking stuff, that's encouraging."
Wood is reinventing himself, attacking hitters with an arsenal
very different from the one he used to blow through the National
League as a rookie in 1998. The one constant is the pace and
movement on his fastball. Wood was clocked at 97 mph in each of
his first two starts, and several times Girardi shook him off to
get him to throw fastballs instead of breaking pitches. "He's a
power pitcher, first and foremost," says Cubs pitching coach
In both starts Wood relied on his fastball, throwing it on 146 of
his 200 pitches. Nearly gone was his sweeping slider, which
terrorized hitters--and put such stress on his elbow. Now he uses
a toned-down slider and a curveball. Says Cubs general manager Ed
Lynch, "He still has an outstanding breaking ball that doesn't
put one quarter the stress on his arm that the power slurve did."
This spring Wood added a changeup, and in his first two starts he
used it as often as his curveball. (Wood's two-game pitch
breakdown: 146 fastballs, 19 changeups, 19 curveballs, 16
sliders.) "Just another pitch he's added to the arsenal," said
Jeff Bagwell with a sigh.
May 18: Cardinals at Phillies
St. Louis righthander Darryl Kile (6-1 with a 4.54 ERA through
Sunday) no doubt has the date circled in red--he gets to face his
favorite opponent in his favorite ballpark. In 21 career
appearances (including 20 starts) against Philadelphia, Kile, who
beat the Phillies on April 30, is 14-3 with a 3.05 ERA. Against
everyone else he's 84-93, and his ERA is 4.44. Perhaps he thrives
on pregame cheese steaks as well: He has won eight of his nine
career starts at the Vet.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis
from Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Setup man Venafro, who lost much of spring training to a finger injury, hasn't regained his 1999 touch.
COLOR PHOTO: TIM SHARP/AP Lawton's confidence took a slide after he was beaned, but now he's batting .363.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: MICHAEL ZAGARIS (2)
the HOT corner
The Cardinals have bashed their way to the top of the National
League Central, but have they been tested? At week's end St.
Louis had played 18 of 31 games at home and only two series
against teams, the Astros and the Reds, who had winning records
The Indians have come up with a plan for deciding which of their
two closers gets the call. If the top or the bottom of the
opponent's order is due up, righthander Steve Karsay goes to
work. If the middle of the lineup is due, in comes righty Paul
Shuey, who has a more powerful arm than does Karsay....
Through Sunday, Oakland reliever Jeff Tam hadn't allowed a home
run in his first 20 1/3 innings, the most innings by an American
League pitcher who had not given up a dinger this season....
It's been an awful year for lefthanded reliever Graeme Lloyd,
who signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Expos in
December. On April 3 his wife, Cindy, died of complications from
Crohn's disease, at age 26, and last week Lloyd had shoulder
surgery that will sideline him for three to four months....
Tony Gwynn, 40, who has had his oft-injured left knee drained at
least five times since the beginning of spring training and has
been on the disabled list since April 29, insists he's not ready
to retire. If he does return next year, his knee may cost him $4
million: Unless he makes at least 502 plate appearances this
season--which is unlikely--the Padres can buy him out for $2
million instead of paying him $6 million in salary in 2001.
in the BOX
May 5, 2000
Tigers 10, Twins 8
Note to Minnesota catcher Matt LeCroy: Set up farther back from
the batter. With the Twins leading 7-4 and runners on first and
second in the top of the seventh, Detroit's Bobby Higginson hit
a line drive to first baseman Ron Coomer for what appeared to be
the first out of the inning. However, home plate umpire Ron
Kulpa ruled that Higginson's swing had nicked LeCroy's glove and
awarded Higginson first base. If not for the
catcher's-interference call, Hector Carrasco, who got the next
two hitters out, might well have escaped the inning unscathed.
Instead four Tigers reached base with two out, and Detroit
scored five runs and won.
It was the second straight game in which the rookie LeCroy's
intrusiveness sparked a Tigers rally. Last Thursday a
catcher's-interference call sent Detroit's Wendell Magee to first
with two outs in the sixth; Detroit scored three unearned runs
that inning and won 8-6.
The 2000 All-Star game in Atlanta might turn into a reunion of
1996 A's infielders. Four years ago it wouldn't have been a
stretch to predict that first baseman Mark McGwire would still
be so good, but shortstop Mike Bordick (left) and third baseman
Scott Brosius, and utilitymen Tony Batista and Jason Giambi?
Through Sunday three of the four had 25 or more RBIs (Batista,
Bordick and Giambi, the league leader) and two of the four were
hitting better than .315 (Bordick and Brosius). In fact,
Bordick, now with the Orioles, was putting up numbers that
rival, and in some cases surpass, those of the league's Big
Three at short--Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex
Rodriguez. Here's how these infielders from the '96 A's did then
and how they're faring this year.
1996 A's 2000
AT CURRENT AT
PLAYER BATS AVG. HR RBI TEAM BATS AVG. HR RBI
Tony Batista 238 .298 6 25 Blue Jays 131 .275 8 25
Mike Bordick 525 .240 5 54 Orioles 110 .336 7 30
Scott Brosius 428 .304 22 71 Yankees 38 .316 1 7
Jason Giambi 536 .291 20 79 A's 104 .298 13 35
Mark McGwire 423 .312 52 113 Cardinals 65 .338 11 24