More Dash Than Bash
With a retooled lineup that relies on speed and defense over
power, the Rockies are rising
A few weeks into spring training, Rockies manager Buddy Bell
introduced a drill to his troops. He would send his players to
their positions, stand at home plate with a fungo bat and, with
a couple of minor leaguers running the bases, lash the ball all
over the field while shouting situations such as, "First and
third, one out!" Standard spring stuff, but with one big catch:
The drill didn't end until the fielders made 27 straight outs
without committing an error, including mental miscues. Shortstop
boots a ground ball? The out count reverted to zero. Cutoff man
missed? Back to zero. "Oh, that was the worst," says second
baseman Mike Lansing. "It was hard. We'd be out there for hours
in the heat, cursing him."
"We were in the middle of it one day, and the players were
saying, 'Hey, the game starts in 45 minutes,'" says third base
coach Rich Donnelly. "Buddy said, 'I don't care when the game
starts, we're staying here till you get it right.' We skipped
batting practice to finish the drill."
Thus did the Rockies receive their indoctrination in Buddy Ball,
the reinvention of the team that began in October when new
general manager Dan O'Dowd started his purge of all but 10 of
the 25 players from the 1999 Opening Day roster. Gone were
slow-footed, stone-gloved mashers like Dante Bichette and Vinny
Castilla; brought in was a sleeker team built around speed and
defense rather than beer league power.
The new assemblage has jelled faster than even O'Dowd could have
hoped. Despite hitting the second-fewest home runs in the
National League, Colorado was the league's highest-scoring team
(6.3 runs per game) through Sunday. Though they dropped two of
three games to the Diamondbacks over the weekend, the Rockies
trailed National League West leader Arizona by just two games.
The surge has been fueled by aspects of the game--stolen bases,
timely hitting, solid defense--rarely seen in Denver before this
year. A season after attempting the second-fewest stolen bases
(113) in the league, the Rockies, with 97 attempts and 70
steals, were the second-most larcenous team. The Rockies were
also the third-best fielding team, and the Colorado pitching
staff, which last year issued a league-record 737 walks, had
allowed only 235, the league's second-lowest total. "This is the
kind of game we needed," says Larry Walker, who moved from
rightfield to left after returning on June 9 from an injured
right elbow that caused him to miss 23 games. "Waiting around
for somebody to hit a home run wasn't working."
Bell should frame the scorecard from last Saturday's game when
the Go-Go Rockies, despite getting just one extra-base hit,
handed Randy Johnson his second loss of the season, 4-0. Three
of Colorado's runs were set up by stolen bases, including one by
pitcher Masato Yoshii, who swiped second in the fifth inning on
a failed hit-and-run attempt. Speed was responsible for the
other score as well: Centerfielder Tom Goodwin, the league
leader with 33 steals, took off for third two pitches after
knocking in Yoshii with a double. Arizona third baseman Craig
Counsell mishandled the throw for an error, and Goodwin galloped
home as the ball trickled into leftfield. Add a handful of
sparkling catches by Goodwin and rightfielder Jeffrey Hammonds
and solid infield defense, and the result was a textbook win.
"That was as good as it gets," said Bell, thrilled especially
because his team, which was 25-8 at Coors but 14-23 on the road,
had won away from home. "We have to do that--play with a lot of
energy and be disruptive to manufacture runs."
The approach seems odd for a team that plays half its games at
Coors Field, where, over the past five seasons more home runs
have been hit than in any other National League park, but Bell
has the Rockies buying into it. "We're all on the same page,"
says Walker. Is that unity different from last season? "Much
It may have been Walker's injury that helped pull everyone
together. After his last game before going on the disabled list
in early May, the Rockies were stumbling along with a 15-18
record, 8 1/2 games behind Arizona. Several players got together
to discuss how they should handle Walker's absence. The verdict:
Concentrate on the little things--moving runners over, playing
sound defense--to manufacture runs and prevent the other team
from scoring. "We just said, 'O.K., our main guy is hurt, let's
make sure we stick together,'" says Lansing.
They did. Led by Goodwin, who hit .354 and went wild on the
bases with 19 steals, and Hammonds, who hit eight homers and
drove in 32 runs, Colorado went 16-7 without Walker and made up
six games in the standings. "Watching Goody steal bags, guys
taking extra bases, this is fun," says first baseman Todd
Helton, who led the league in hitting at week's end with a .376
average. "I enjoy watching that type of baseball."
Colorado fans are finding out that they do too.
Players on Block Have Last Word
This has already been a busy year for the rumor mill, with
reports almost daily about potential deals for such stars as
Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa. But with the July 31 trade
deadline still a month away, there's reason to believe much of
the talk between now and then won't progress past that rumor
stage. Many players who will attract interest have the power to
derail blockbuster deals by invoking clauses in their contracts.
The Orioles could be especially hamstrung if they elect to hold
a midsummer fire sale. Righthander Mike Mussina, who can become
a free agent after this season and will attract interest as long
as his negotiations for a new deal drag on, has a no-trade
clause in his contract and said in May there is "no way" he
would waive it this season. Outfielder B.J. Surhoff, whose
lefthanded bat is a sure attraction for teams in the playoff
hunt, has a limited no-trade agreement that lists six teams--the
Blue Jays, Dodgers, Expos, Mariners, Mets and Pirates--to which
he can refuse to be dealt. The Cubs' Kevin Tapani, another
veteran pitcher contenders might covet, also can't be traded
without his permission.
A number of other players, including Sosa, have the right to
veto any deals involving them because they are 10-5
players--they have 10 years of major league service, the last
five with the same team. More players are on the brink of
gaining that power. Baltimore righthander Scott Erickson, for
example, will become a 10-5 man on July 7 unless the Orioles
deal him before then. Another 11 players, including Cardinals
outfielder Ray Lankford and Indians righthander Charles Nagy,
will earn their veto rights by the end of the season unless they
are sent packing before their date comes up.
Nilsson in Japan
Land of the Sinking Brewer
Dave Nilsson had every reason to believe he'd be a success this
season playing for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Central
League. After all, unlike many major league expatriates who turn
to Japan in last-ditch attempts at extending dying careers, the
former Brewers catcher was in his prime. Nilsson was an All-Star
with Milwaukee last year, hitting .309 with 21 home runs in 115
games before missing most of the season's final month with a
broken right thumb. In the spring a major Japanese sports
tabloid even named him the country's most promising foreign
The move to Japan came about because Nilsson, a native of
Brisbane, Australia, wanted to represent his country in the
Sydney Olympics in September. His one-year, $2 million contract
with the Dragons guarantees him time off to do that, a
concession he would not have gotten in the U.S.
He can only hope his Olympic experience goes more smoothly than
his stay in Japan. Nilsson was eaten up by Japanese pitching in
the opening weeks of the season. He hit .170 with one home run
in his first 15 games, and on April 22 was banished to the
Dragons' Western League farm team in Nagoya.
In the minors Nilsson, who has been used mostly as an outfielder
in Japan, regained his stroke--at week's end he was hitting .330
with six homers and 24 RBIs--but a return to the Dragons didn't
seem imminent. His spot in the lineup was filled by South Korean
outfielder Jong Beorm Lee, who was hitting .277 and was tied for
second in the league with 10 stolen bases. A minor back ailment
was another complication. In May, Nilsson returned to Australia
for chiropractic treatment he couldn't get in Japan.
"I still believe I made the right decision [to go to Japan],"
says Nilsson, who hasn't decided if he'll return to the U.S.
next season. "My teammates and the fans are great, and there's
nothing bad to say about Japan."
June 30-July 2: A's at Angels
Souvenir hunters know that one of their best chances to get a
home run ball will be in the Edison Field bleachers this
weekend. The A's, the fifth most prolific homer-hitting team in
the majors, rumble in to face an Anaheim staff that has had its
collective head spun more often than Beetlejuice's. Only the
Royals, Astros and Cubs have given up more dingers than the
Angels. Oakland's lineup doesn't provide many chances to relax,
with five hitters who have 12 or more home runs. If the A's do
unload, expect the Angels to return fire: They've hit the
third-most homers in the majors.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN HAUCK/AP Moved to right when Walker was injured, Hammonds has sparked Colorado with his bat and glove.
COLOR PHOTO: ERIC LARS BAKKE/SPORTS IMAGERY
the HOT corner
Griping about this season's silly schedule has become a pastime
in itself, but here's one more bizarre tidbit: The Padres and
the Diamondbacks wrapped up their 13-game season series last
week--before San Diego had played any other team in the National
Through Sunday, Twins shortstop Cristian Guzman led the majors
with 12 triples, putting him on pace to challenge Shoeless Joe
Jackson's 88-year-old American League record of 26. Only two
American League players--George Brett (20 in 1979) and Willie
Wilson (21 in '85)--have hit as many as 20 triples in a season
Before a game against the White Sox on June 21, the Indians'
Kenny Lofton and rookie teammate Russell Branyan wrestled during
an argument over a card game. "It was nothing," said Cleveland
manager Charlie Manuel. "It was just a little flare-up between
two guys who are frustrated." Lofton, who was hitting .250 at
the time, went 5 for 13 and scored four runs in his next three
Phillies shortstop Desi Relaford, who led the majors with 19
errors at week's end, on his defensive problems: "I'm not in a
rut. I'm in a ravine with Teflon-coated sides."...
After the White Sox increased their American League Central lead
to 7 1/2 games over the Indians on June 17, outfielder David
Justice offered Cleveland fans what sounded like a concession
speech: "There comes a time when you say, 'Hey, maybe the window
of opportunity is closing for this team.' The Indians had two
chances [to win the World Series], in 1995 and 1997, and blew
it. With the injuries and everything, maybe it's closing on us
Astros righthander Jose Lima (left) was a 21-game winner in
1999, but through Sunday he was 1-11 and winless in his last 14
appearances. Lima's well on his way to joining this list of
eight expansion-era pitchers who made at least 15 appearances
and failed to win more than five games the season after they won
20. --David Sabino
PLAYER, TEAM YEAR APPEARANCES RECORD YEAR APPEARANCES RECORD
Jim Merritt, Reds 1970 35 20-12 1971 28 1-11
Frank Lary, Tigers 1961 36 23-9 1962 17 2-6
Ron Bryant, Giants 1973 41 24-12 1974 41 3-15
Dave Boswell, Twins 1969 39 20-12 1970 18 3-7
Ed Figueroa, Yankees 1978 35 20-9 1979 16 4-6
Steve Stone, Orioles 1980 37 25-7 1981 15 4-7
Mike Krukow, Giants 1986 34 20-9 1987 30 5-6
Bret Saberhagen, 1989 36 23-6 1990 20 5-9
in the BOX
June 23, 2000
Blue Jays 5, Red Sox 4
Canada is hockey country, so it's fitting that a stop that would
have made Curtis Joseph proud helped Toronto vault to the top of
the American League East. With two out in the eighth, Boston
trailed by a run but had the bases loaded against Blue Jays
closer Billy Koch, who had given up two walks and a run-scoring
double to the first three hitters he'd faced. Koch's first pitch
to the fourth, Jason Varitek, headed for the batter's feet.
Varitek jumped out of the way, and the ball skipped past catcher
Alberto Castillo for an apparent wild pitch that would score
Nomar Garciaparra from third and tie the game.
But after getting by Castillo, the ball hit plate umpire Dale
Scott in the foot and dribbled a few feet away. Castillo got it
before any runners could advance, Varitek popped out, and Koch
breezed through the ninth to seal the win. "We caught a great
kick save from the umpire and that was the game," said Blue Jays
manager Jim Fregosi.