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Inside Baseball

Defensive Alignments
Shifty Characters

Mark McGwire says it doesn't register when he comes to the plate
that the left side of the infield often resembles a phone booth
packed with fraternity brothers. "I never notice until I hit the
ball and I think it's a base hit," says McGwire of the infield
shifts that many teams employ against him. "Then I see a guy
standing there."

Against the righthanded McGwire, a dead-pull hitter when he puts
the ball on the ground, many teams position their shortstop deep
in the third base hole and their second baseman on the third
base side of second. Like most sluggers who face similar
shifts--Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Carlos Delgado, Ken Griffey
Jr. and Jim Thome also often see it--McGwire refuses to alter
his hitting approach to take advantage of the spaces the shift

"We're trying to play with their minds a little bit," says A's
manager Art Howe, who this season has deployed the shift on the
right side against the lefthanded-hitting Delgado and Thome, and
on the left side against the White Sox' righthanded-hitting
Carlos Lee. Those batters have gone a combined 13 for 42 with
six RBIs against Oakland. None of the three tried to hit the
ball the opposite way. "Those guys have pride. They're going to
try to hit it through," says Howe.

Thome did give in against the Rangers in April: He tried to bunt
for a base hit, but Texas starter Rick Helling threw him out.
Indians manager Charlie Manuel says bunting isn't necessary;
hits are there for Thome's taking. "If he cut down on his swing
and hit the ball where it was pitched, he would be O.K.," Manuel

The strategy backfired for the A's on May 23, when they shifted
against the Devil Rays' Canseco with bases loaded and no outs.
Canseco cued a ground ball off the end of his bat to the right
side. The ball rolled through the hole where second baseman
Randy Velarde would normally have been, giving Canseco a single
and two RBIs. "Just luck," Canseco says. "I was kind of fooled

Despite the opportunities for such easy hits, most sluggers
adopt an air of defiance against shifts. "Put the whole team out
there," says Griffey. "If you hit it hard enough or far enough,
they can't catch it. They'll be doing the same thing as the
people sitting in the first row: They'll be looking up."
--Stephen Cannella

Jeff Fassero's Comeback
Head Is Stronger Than Arm

Sometime last season, during which he had a 5-14 record and a
7.20 ERA with the Mariners and the Rangers, Red Sox lefthander
Jeff Fassero made a decision. "I had to stop trying to overpower
people and learn how to pitch again," says Fassero, 37. "I
couldn't throw 92, 93 mph anymore, but I was still trying to.
Maybe that was my ego. I needed to change my approach."

After receiving scant attention as a free agent following last
season, Fassero signed with Boston on Dec. 22 for one year at $2
million and went to work with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who
had held the same post with the Expos during most of Fassero's
time with Montreal from 1991 through '96. Comparing tapes from
Fassero's Expos years and 1999, Kerrigan noticed that Fassero
was putting extra weight on his left leg in his windup, giving
less downward motion on his pitches.

A more important factor in his improvement, says Fassero, was
his decision to stop trying to overpower the hitter. Fassero
relies heavily on one of the game's better sliders. When he
throws a fastball, which now travels in the 88- to 90-mph range,
it's in and out, up and down. "Could I hit 93? Probably," he
says. "But it wouldn't work. Look at Tom Glavine. Look at Greg
Maddux. They're all around 90. What it comes down to is hitting
your spots. I've learned." Indeed. Through Sunday he was 6-1
with a 3.57 ERA.

With the Mariners, Fassero says he felt pressure, mostly
self-inflicted, to be the ace of a staff reeling from the loss
of Randy Johnson. Instead of rising to the occasion, he
crumbled. In 156 1/3 innings with Seattle and Texas, which
acquired him in an Aug. 27 trade for a minor league outfielder,
Fassero gave up 83 walks and 35 home runs. "When everything's
going wrong, it's easy to forget one thing: This is supposed to
be fun," says Fassero, who had walked only 18 batters in 63
innings through Sunday. Fassero no longer returns to the bench
after an inning and sits by himself. Nor does he scowl and pout.
"When you've been as low as I was," he says, "you're thrilled to
still have a job."

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Thome, here facing the Red Sox, has generally refused to go the other way against the shift.