Publish date:

Inside Baseball

Compact, pesky Fernando Vina sets the table for Cardinals' big

Fernando Vina carries a chiseled 174 pounds on his frame, but at
5'9" he still resembles a stump in the Cardinals' clubhouse, a
forest of sizable sluggers. "I call him Mini-Me," says utilityman
Shawon Dunston, comparing Vina, St. Louis's second baseman and
leadoff hitter, to the knee-high Austin Powers villain. "He's
tiny, and he's got that little-man complex."

National League pitchers are developing a Vina complex. Since
joining the Cardinals in an off-season trade with the Brewers,
Vina, 31, has been setting the table for the home run
orgies--through Sunday, St. Louis had hit 89 homers and was on
pace to smash the major league single-season record of 264 by
71--that have become the team's trademark.

Consider a 7-2 win over the Phillies last Thursday a Cliffs Notes
version of St. Louis's season. The Cardinals scored all their
runs on three homers by Mark McGwire, who, of course, was the
object of postgame attention at Veterans Stadium. Virtually
ignored was Vina's night: He went 2 for 4, was hit by a pitch,
scored two runs and reached base to lead off each inning in which
McGwire homered. "He's definitely been our spark plug," says St.
Louis righthander Andy Benes of Vina.

The numbers bear Benes out. St. Louis had scored in 122 innings
of the 39 games Vina had started through Sunday; he had reached
base or sacrificed in 43 of those innings, scored and/or driven
in a run in 42 and gotten on base to lead off an inning 24 times.
He was second on the team in runs, with 36 (Jim Edmonds, in the
midst of a career year, had 43), was tied for the lead in hits
(53, with Edmonds) and was third in on-base percentage (.424).
"When I played against him, I used to think he was a pest," says
McGwire. "He's always getting on base by a walk or hit or
whatever. He just causes havoc."

Says Phillies righthander Paul Byrd, "That's the right word:
pest. Those are my least favorite guys to face." The
characterization doesn't bother Vina, who was hitting .325
through Sunday. "If that's the way people view me, fine," he
says. "As a leadoff guy, I have to be that way."

Vina's shoring up of the Cardinals' leadoff spot--their .349
on-base percentage in that position was tied for ninth in the
league in 1999--was hardly guaranteed when the trade was made in
December. An All-Star in '98, Vina had been bugged by a knee
injury most of last season and played in only 37 games, hitting
.266 with an on-base percentage of .339. He spent the off-season
in his hometown of Sacramento, working out under the guidance of
five-time Olympic speed skating champion Eric Heiden, now one of
the NBA Kings' team doctors, to strengthen his hamstrings and
take pressure off his knees. "I'd never really worked on my legs
in the off-season before," says Vina, for whom the workout
program was a successful last-ditch effort at avoiding knee
surgery. "For my kind of game, I need my legs to be strong."

Vina was also energized by his escape from Milwaukee. "Anytime
you can come to a place like this, with great history and a great
chance to win, you have to be happy," he says. "In Milwaukee we
never had a chance."

He also upgraded St. Louis's infield defense. Through Sunday,
Vina was the only starting second baseman in the National League
without an error this season, and his new mates are amazed at how
quickly he turns the double play. "He's money in the bank," says
Dunston. "With two outs in the bottom of the ninth in a World
Series game, I want the ball hit to him."

More important, Vina has instilled a sense of patience and
discipline at the top of the lineup, so much so that opposing
pitchers are often worn out or distracted by Vina's presence on
base when the sluggers come to the plate.

"He affects the whole game," says McGwire. "Pitch counts go up,
and that affects the pitcher. I played with probably the best
leadoff hitter ever, in Rickey Henderson. Vina is following in
those footsteps."

Frustration Boils Over

On May 17, with yet another game slipping away from the inept
Devil Rays, Tampa Bay catcher Mike DiFelice stomped out to the
mound to confront reliever Jeff Sparks. It was the seventh inning
of what would become an 11-6 Devil Rays loss to the Rangers, and
Sparks, a rookie, had just walked all three hitters he'd
faced--including one with the bases loaded. DiFelice, incensed at
Sparks's insistence on throwing screwballs instead of fastballs
even as his control deserted him, launched into a tirade on the
mound that lasted until manager Larry Rothschild stepped in and
sent Sparks to the showers.

"I believe in Jeff Sparks and in our entire pitching staff," an
unapologetic DiFelice said after the game. "Whatever anger shows
in those situations just shows how much you care."

Sparks's reaction? "I'm not going to make any excuses," he said.
"I just sucked today."

Yankee Flaws?

It's hard to nitpick about a team that had the American League's
second-best record (24-16) through Sunday, but it was clear that
something was amiss with the Yankees. Runs had been hard to come
by for the Bombers: They'd scored more than three times in just
three of their last nine games, and their season average of 4.7.
runs per game was 13th in the American League. "I'm not
worried--not quite yet," owner George Steinbrenner told The New
York Times early last week. "Not in the middle of May. This is a
long season."

Despite the Boss's protestations, the Yankees have been
conspicuous in their efforts to find a veteran bat to prop up the
offense, especially by boosting production in left. Ricky Ledee,
26, who won the leftfield job in spring training, has been mired
in a season-long slump and was hitting .218 with two homers and
11 RBIs through Sunday. New York has been scouting Cubs
outfielder Henry Rodriguez and the Devil Rays' Jose Canseco,
among others.

Still, the Yankees' lack of runs stems from a shortcoming new
blood won't necessarily cure. More telling than their low ranking
in runs was their low standing in the league in walks (12th, with
132) and on-base percentage (11th, .338), two categories in which
they shone while winning three of the last four World Series.

The drop-off begins at the top of the order, where second baseman
Chuck Knoblauch and shortstop Derek Jeter haven't been their
usual patient selves. Knoblauch, who averaged a walk every 8.6
trips to the plate last season, had only eight in 135 plate
appearances, and a mere three of those had come since April 18.
Before he went on the disabled list last Friday, Jeter had 14
walks in 141 plate appearances, or one every 10.1 trips; he
walked once every 8.1 plate appearances last year. "If you have a
track record of what you can do," Knoblauch said last week, "I
firmly believe that at the end of the year, you'll have done the

New York fans--and pitchers--can only hope he's right.

Appreciating Pedro Martinez

Reducing the artistry of Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez's
performance this year to a series of numbers is like trying to
appreciate Shakespeare by parsing his dialogue. Still, with
roughly a quarter of the season gone, Martinez, who was 7-1 with
an 0.90 ERA through Sunday, is stirring speculation that he'll
make a run at some of pitching's most hallowed statistics. After
Martinez blew away the Orioles with a two-hitter on May 12 (he
had 15 strikeouts in the 9-0 complete game), Baltimore manager
Mike Hargrove said he thought the righthanded Martinez would win
30 games this season. Blue Jays assistant G.M. Dave Stewart says
Martinez can surpass Bob Gibson's 1968 National League
single-season ERA record of 1.12.

Though those landmarks are a long way off, it's fun to
extrapolate. Here are some other eye-popping numbers from
Martinez's phenomenal first quarter.

--Having given up 33 hits and pitched 60 1/3 innings in Boston's
first 40 games, Martinez was on pace to throw 244 innings and
allow 134 hits. The record for fewest hits allowed by a pitcher
with more than 200 innings pitched is 129, set by Ed Reulbach of
the Cubs in 1906.

--On May 12, Martinez tied Luis Tiant's 32-year-old American
League record for strikeouts in consecutive games (32)--and came
within five of Nolan Ryan's major league record of 47 punch-outs
over three straight games.

--Martinez had jumped out to an 0-and-2 count on 41 batters. Only
seven of those hitters put the ball in play, including two who
had gotten a hit; 34 had struck out. The numbers were little
better for hitters who had worked the count full. Martinez had
struck out 15 of the 24 hitters who had gone to 3 and 2 against
him, walked five, retired three on putouts in the field and
allowed only one hit.

On Deck

May 30: Marlins at Pirates
A Cy Young showdown...circa 2005? As of Sunday the two teams'
rotations looked set for young righties Brad Penny, 21, of
Florida and Kris Benson, 25, of Pittsburgh to face off. Both were
drafted in 1996--Benson the No. 1 pick, Penny taken in the fifth
round by the Diamondbacks. Both are aces-to-be around whom young
teams are building. Both throw fastballs in the mid-90s and
knee-buckling curves. Penny, after winning three of his first
four, had lost five in a row; Benson, after a slow start, had won
four of his last five.

For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Tom Verducci, go to

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Slowed by injuries in 1999, Vina was hitting a healthy .325 with a .424 on-base percentage as of Sunday.

the HOT corner

Phillies manager Terry Francona has at least one friend in
Philadelphia, where fans have been calling for his head in the
wake of Philly's 15-27 start through Sunday: Ace Curt Schilling
rushed to Francona's defense last week. "He hasn't kicked a ball,
failed to drive in a run or walked anybody," said Schilling. "Of
all the people to shoulder the blame, he's probably at the bottom
of the list."...

Astros closer Billy Wagner, who had blown three of his seven
save chances, didn't take kindly to manager Larry Dierker's
recent critique of his fastball. "There's nothing wrong with his
velocity, but maybe the movement isn't there like it was,"
Dierker said. Wagner's response: "If he doesn't think my
fastball is moving, hey, get a bat."...

Padres outfielder Eric Owens on Diamondbacks submarining
righthanded reliever Byung-Hyun Kim, who had 32 strikeouts in 18
2/3 innings: "They should outlaw those guys in baseball. Guys
that throw like that should play fast-pitch softball. It looks
like he's throwing the ball out of the dirt."...

Swifter, higher, older? Wade Boggs, 41, is the biggest name
among the former players who have expressed interest in playing
for the U.S. in the Sydney Olympics. Tom Candiotti, 42, Chili
Davis, 40, Orestes Destrade, 38, Gary Gaetti, 41, Jimmy Key, 39,
Willie McGee, 41, Tom Pagnozzi, 37, Tim Raines, 40, and Terry
Steinbach, 38, also have spoken of the possibility....

Woeful attendance in Oakland is nothing new, but this is
embarrassing: On May 15 the A's were outdrawn by their Triple A
affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats, 14,111 to 6,386.

in the BOX

May 18, 2000
Padres 6, Marlins 2

Crime doesn't pay--just ask Florida, which lost despite a grandly
larcenous performance against San Diego. Taking advantage of
righthander Stan Spencer's notoriously slow delivery, the Marlins
stole 10 bases in 10 attempts against him, all in the first five
innings. Thanks to an embarrassing lack of clutch hitting,
however, all the running amounted to little more than exercise.
Florida went 1 for 8 with two walks in the 10 plate appearances
during which the steals took place; in six of those at bats the
Marlins failed to get the ball out of the infield.

Coming within one of tying the National League record for steals
in a game--held by the 1912 Giants and the '16 Cardinals--was
little consolation to Florida manager John Boles. "It's not the
worst loss of the year," he said. "It's one of the worst losses
ever. I feel like my head is going to explode."