Behind the 'Backs
Even when closer Matt Mantei was out, Arizona was relieved by
Arizona righthander Mike Morgan has pitched more than 2,600
innings for 12 teams in his 20 seasons in the majors, and not
once, he says, has he iced his right arm. His postgame routine
is about as common as a surgeon eschewing a pre-op scrub. "I
don't throw 100 [mph] like Randy Johnson, but after the game
he's wrapped up in ice," says Morgan, 40, who keeps his arm in
fighting trim with push-ups and exercises designed by arm guru
Dr. Frank Jobe. "I take a shower and go home."
The only icing Morgan has done this year has been in the late
innings, protecting leads while regular closer Matt Mantei spent
30 of Arizona's first 42 games on the disabled list. Through
Sunday, Morgan, who had made only 71 career relief appearances
and had three saves before this season, was 5 for 5 in save
opportunities and 1-0 with a 2.76 ERA. He is the most pleasant
surprise in a bullpen that before the season was thought to be
the Diamondbacks' weak spot, even with Mantei healthy. At week's
end Arizona had the best relief ERA (3.19) in the National
League and was 32-4 when it led after seven innings, a big
reason that it had a five-game Western Division lead over the
Dodgers and the majors' second-best record.
The contribution of Morgan, the fourth-oldest player in the
majors, has been matched by that of the youngest Diamondback,
21-year-old Korean import Byung-Hyun Kim. Inconsistent as a
rookie last season, when he was 1-2 with an ERA of 4.61, Kim has
blossomed this year, terrorizing hitters with his submarine
delivery, a fastball in the low 90s, a hard slider and a pitch
he calls an upshoot, which he flings from inches above the dirt
and sends rising through the strike zone. He had five saves, a
1.54 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings. "You think that
pitch is going to sink," says Padres outfielder Eric Owens, "but
the ball rises, and he has that slider to set it up."
Kim's sudden dominance is the result of improved command and
increased aggressiveness. As a rookie he pecked around the
perimeter of the plate and walked 20 in 27 1/3 innings; through
Sunday he had yielded 10 walks and had attacked hitters, going
to three-ball counts on just 18 of the 98 batters he'd faced. In
early May he struck out eight in a row over four appearances,
part of a longer stretch in which he K'd 14 out of 19. "He was a
little overwhelmed last year," says Arizona catcher Damian
Miller. "This year he's calm and collected."
Morgan, who won 13 games in 25 starts for the Rangers last year,
signed with the Diamondbacks in the off-season, thinking he
would pitch in long relief and grab the occasional spot start.
When Mantei went down with biceps tendinitis before the season,
Morgan drifted into the more high-profile bullpen role. "I've
been a nervous wreck," he says. "When the phone rings down
there, I'm up out of my chair throwing before anyone answers it.
When I was a starter, I was nervous on the days I pitched. Now
I'm nervous every day."
His performance has belied that anxiety. Working efficiently--he
had thrown an average of just 14.3 pitches per inning at week's
end--Morgan had held batters to a .214 average and had usually
been in and out of the game before hitters could figure out his
arsenal of sinkers, sliders and split-fingers. "We didn't know
what he could do in the bullpen since he'd never really been
down there," says Diamondbacks pitching coach Mark Connor.
"Maybe he can pitch for a few more years in this capacity."
The emergence of Morgan and Kim also eased the pressure on
Mantei, who returned to action on May 23 and had one save in
three outings in the first week back after his second stint on
the disabled list. "They made it easier for me to get my work
done and not worry about rushing back too soon," says Mantei.
"They did their job, and hopefully now that I'm back, we can all
fall into our comfortable roles."
Behind the Language
Unusual Run of Walk-offs
No, you're not the only one sick of walk-off. Yes, it has become
the most overused term since the Church Lady was oozing
catchphrases on Saturday Night Live. Well, walk-off-weary fans
can at least take solace in this fact: When it comes to
walk-offs--games in which the home team is victorious in its
last at bat--this season really has been special. According to
the Elias Sports Bureau there were 87 in the 729 games through
Sunday, an average of one every 8.4 games. Last season there
were 202 such wins, or one every 12.0 games. In the past five
seasons the biggest year for walk-offs was 1997, when one of
every 10.5 games ended in that fashion.
Like everything else related to the long ball, the numbers for
walk-off homers are especially inflated this year. In 1990 there
was a walk-off home run every 46.8 games. Last season there were
53 walk-off homers, or one every 45.8 games. This year? Walk-off
blasts are roughly twice as common. Whatever the reason--juiced
balls, shoddy pitching, Satan--there were 31 through Sunday, one
every 23.5 games.
Brave New Start
Less Is Better For Bonilla
These days Bobby Bonilla sounds like either the happiest player
in the majors or a newly brainwashed member of a cult. "I'm
delighted to be here," says the 37-year-old Bonilla, who signed
with the Braves during the off-season for the major league
minimum $200,000. "I'm having a great time. I feel like a kid
This doesn't sound like the frustrated guy who hit .160 with 18
RBIs in 60 games for the Mets last year, the one who spent more
time feuding with manager Bobby Valentine than he did on base.
More surprising, Bonilla is playing a role for Atlanta that he
balked at filling in New York, that of a part-time player and
pinch hitter. "I don't mind, because before I signed, the Braves
were up-front with me about what they wanted," says Bonilla. "It
was one of the biggest compliments of my career when they called
and said they wanted me here."
Bonilla has endeared himself to the Braves with more than a
sunny face in the clubhouse. Through Sunday he was hitting .305
with three home runs and 14 RBIs in 105 at bats, including 5 for
7 with six RBIs as a pinch hitter. He was the anchor of a deep
bench that had kept Atlanta humming despite injuries to
outfielders Brian Jordan and Reggie Sanders.
The attitude adjustment is but one facet of Bonilla's makeover.
He's 30 pounds lighter thanks, he says, to an off-season yoga
program that emphasized flexibility and cut back on his
weightlifting, and he's using a new stance at the plate. Gone is
the high leg kick; in its place he takes a short step and moves
his hands quickly into the pitch. "We talked about it in spring
training," says Braves hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "I told
him, 'Use your regular swing and cut off all the frosting.' If
you're not playing every day, the leg kick is not usable."
Says Bonilla, "All that movement was too much to keep sharp. I'm
seeing the ball better now than I have in a long time."
Keeping the Lid On
The stiff punishments the Dodgers received for charging into the
Wrigley Field stands and brawling with fans on May 16--three
coaches and 16 players were hit with a combined 84 games in
suspensions and $72,000 in fines--made it clear that baseball
won't tolerate players mixing it up with paying customers,
regardless of provocation. What's less clear is how seriously
players' security is threatened by misbehaving spectators,
especially in ballparks like Wrigley, where fan intimacy is a
major drawing card. "Wrigley is a prototype," said Major League
Baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson after the
Dodgers fiasco. "We have to be more wary of fans and players
coming in greater contact with each other."
In the wake of Wrigleygate several teams are beefing up ballpark
security. The Giants will have a police officer roaming the
stands bordering the visitors' bullpen at cozy Pac Bell Park.
"There has to be better security," says Giants manager Dusty
Baker. "All it takes is one drunk fan who just had an argument
with his wife."
"Security isn't the issue," says Dodgers general manager Kevin
Malone. "Alcohol is the issue." The Cubs have taken steps to
ensure that fans are less likely to get drunk: Beer sales are
now cut off in the middle of the sixth inning, not the top of
the seventh, and beer vendors will stock up only halfway for
their final trip through the stands. In a move they say could
cost them a few hundred thousand dollars this season, the
Yankees have cut off all beer sales in the Yankee Stadium
bleachers. Earlier this season the Mets decided to bench their
mobile beer vendors in the seventh inning, rather than the
eighth, and to cut their four-beer-per-purchase limit in half.
The Mets are also cracking down on drinking in the Shea Stadium
parking lot, upholding a policy that had often been lightly
"We're trying to be proactive," says director of Shea operations
Kevin McCarthy, who met last week with Major League Baseball
executives to plan security for John Rocker's return to Shea,
later this month. "We don't want people coming in boozed up, and
we want to make it hard for them to get intoxicated at Shea."
A Second Look
June 5-7: Orioles at Mets
During the winter of 1998 the Orioles, fed up with righthander
Armando Benitez's slow development and immaturity, shored up
their bullpen--or so they thought--by signing free-agent closer
Mike Timlin and then shipping the flamethrowing 25-year-old
Benitez to the Mets. Since then Baltimore's pen has been a
disaster, blowing nearly as many saves (38) as it has converted
(39). Now the Orioles get another look at Benitez, who has
blossomed into the stopper he was supposed to be in Baltimore.
Through Sunday he was second in the National League with 13
saves and had blown just one, while striking out 34 in 27 innings.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis
from Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE The submarining Kim has torpedoed hitters, fanning 41 in 23 1/3 innings and accruing a 1.54 ERA.
COLOR PHOTO: JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP
COLOR PHOTO: CHARLES CHERNEY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/AP Wrigley brawl: a too-close encounter.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG
Tigers catcher Brad Ausmus (left), long known for his defense,
is on an uncommon offensive streak. In each of his seven big
league seasons Ausmus has set a career high in runs batted in.
Through Sunday, Ausmus needed to knock in 44 more runs this
season to extend his streak to eight years. Here are the only
active hitters who, like Ausmus, reached personal RBI highs in
at least the last five consecutive seasons. --David Sabino
PLAYER, TEAM RBIS IN 1992 '93 '94 '95 '96 '97 '98 '99 '00 SEASONS
Tigers - 12 24 34 35 44 45 54 11 7
Devil Rays 6 6 13 28 34 41 44 68 29 6
Athletics - - - 25 79 81 110 123 51 5
Pirates - - - 3 27 61 66 115 49 5
Brewers - - - 3 13 47 54 67 21 5
Angels - - - 1 6 8 21 23 4 5
Blue Jays - - - 1 2 22 55 67 12 5
the HOT corner
The Astros' tailspin has begun to grate on at least one Houston
veteran. "With the talent we have, we should never be playing as
badly as we're playing," first baseman Jeff Bagwell said after
Houston ended an 0-6 road trip last week. "I'm embarrassed to be
Not that he's superstitious or anything, but Texas lefthander
Kenny Rogers noticed that the Rangers were 8-14 through Sunday
when wearing their new blue jerseys. "If I believed in all that
stuff, we'd be in a lot of trouble," says Rogers, who, like the
rest of the pitchers in the Rangers' rotation, gets to choose
which of its jerseys the team will wear when he pitches, "but
just for safety's sake, we'll wear the gray ones the next time I
The Devil Rays released righthander Dwight Gooden and shortstop
Kevin Stocker last Thursday, and general manager Chuck LaMar
indicated that no one else on the team should feel safe. "We
have some young players who have taken the major leagues for
granted," LaMar says. "We've had some veteran players...who are
taking their positions on this team for granted because they are
making x amount of dollars, or they look around and say, 'Who
are they going to replace me with?'"...
Greg Maddux is closing in on another record: The Braves
righthander needs three more putouts to break Jack Morris's
major league mark for career putouts by a pitcher (387). Says
Maddux, "Nobody cares, except maybe my mom."...
Giants manager Dusty Baker's take on lefthander Shawn Estes's
shutout of the Expos on May 24, a game in which Estes also had a
grand slam and five RBIs? "That was perhaps the best performance
I've seen by a pitcher."...
Padres catcher Carlos Hernandez has found a way to make up for
righthander Stan Spencer's glacial move to the plate, against
which the Marlins stole 10 bases on May 18. Hernandez told
Spencer about a trick he learned while playing winter ball with
former major league pitcher Urbano Lugo five years ago: When the
catcher sees the runner take off, he jumps from behind the plate
as if expecting a pitchout. Whereupon the pitcher throws a
fastball, regardless of what was called. The tactic worked in
Spencer's next start, against the Mets, when Hernandez gunned
down Edgardo Alfonzo in the first inning. Alfonzo was the last
Met to try to steal in that game.
in the box
May 26, 2000
Mets 5, Cardinals 2
With the Mets leading 1-0 in the fourth, New York shortstop Rey
Ordonez, who entered the game hitting .187, came to the plate
with nobody out and Benny Agbayani on first. After Agbayani
stole second, Ordonez laid down a bunt--an odd move considering
that the Mets' pitcher, Mike Hampton, was on deck. Then again,
Hampton is one of the best-hitting pitchers in the game and had
a .261 average when the game started.
Hampton whacked a sacrifice fly to leftfield that scored
Agbayani. He went on to pitch eight innings, allowing two runs,
to earn his sixth win of the season; he also had a pair of
singles to go with his sac fly. "Rey's bunting for a base hit
there, but we'll take a sacrifice," said Mets manager Bobby
Valentine, who used Hampton as a pinch hitter on May 13. "When
it's a close game, I don't mind Mike hitting with a man on third
and one out."
Free Agent DERBY
And they're off! It's never too early to think about next
year--especially for the free-agent class of 2000, which could
be the most star-studded ever. Alex Rodriguez (.343, 15 home
runs, league-leading .451 on-base percentage through Sunday) has
done nothing to compromise his status as the class of the field
in the race for baseball's next megacontract. Here's how some of
the other big names were doing in the run for the riches.
MANNY RAMIREZ, OF, Indians
.320, 13 home runs, 46 RBIs
Not off to awe-inspiring start of last year, but still most
coveted run producer available
CHIPPER JONES, 3B, Braves
.305, 11 home runs, 36 RBIs
Has hinted that return to Atlanta was no sure thing; he may
MIKE HAMPTON, LHP, Mets
6-4, 3.99 ERA
Returned to form after hellish start; figures to command top
dollar in bullish market for talented lefties
JUAN GONZALEZ, OF, Tigers
.269, 9 home runs, 19 RBIs
Five homers since May 16, but not committed to Detroit and a
likely subject of hot trade-deadline bidding
MIKE MUSSINA, RHP, Orioles
With paltry run support and frustration over lagging contract
negotiations, is off to worst start of his career