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Inside Baseball

An F for the A's
Touted as a contender, awful Oakland is in danger of falling out
of the playoff picture

What can a team do when it finishes the season's first month
buried deep in a divisional hole? For the A's, who trailed the
red-hot Mariners by 12 games in the American League West on May
1, the answer is: not much. "Just because we started 8-18 doesn't
mean we all of a sudden have $90 million to spend to fix it,"
says Oakland general manager Billy Beane, whose $33.8 million
Opening Day payroll was the second smallest in the majors. Beane
says the A's remain committed to the team that was assembled for
this season and are planning no drastic changes. "We have no
choice," he says.

There's hope for last-place Oakland--since 1969 eight teams have
rebounded from double-digit deficits to win their divisions--and
the A's lot did begin to improve slightly last week. They pieced
together their first three-game win streak of the season by
taking two from the Blue Jays and then the opener of a three-game
series from the Red Sox. That victory over Boston last Friday,
coupled with the Mariners' loss to Toronto, shaved Oakland's
deficit in the American League West to 11 games; that marked the
first time the A's had gained ground since the second game of the
season. At week's end Oakland was 11-20, again 12 games behind

Explaining why the A's, preseason favorites to win the West, fell
on their faces out of the gate is easy. "We didn't play any
particular part of the game very well," says Beane. Through
Sunday the Oakland starters had a 5.41 ERA, second-worst in the
league. Righthanded reliever Jim Mecir, a much-relied-upon cog
during the A's run to the division crown late last season, went
0-4 in his first six appearances. Timely hitting had been all too
rare: Oakland was batting .213 with runners in scoring position,
second-worst in the majors. Newly acquired leftfielder Johnny
Damon, who was expected to spur the offense with speed and
aggressiveness, had struggled, hitting .204 with only six extra
base hits and a meager .259 on-base percentage. "Damon has been a
disaster," says one American League scout. "He looks like he's
pressing really, really hard."

Aware that several teammates were similarly tense, first baseman
and clubhouse leader Jason Giambi (one of the A's few bright
spots, with a .320 average, six home runs and 20 RBIs) called a
players-only meeting before last Friday's win. He pointed out
ways in which Oakland had hurt itself. "Perfect example: We've
got guys in scoring position, and [Toronto closer] Billy Koch
throws a couple up around Miggy's [shortstop Miguel Tejada]
helmet, and he's swinging," Giambi said the day before the
meeting, after the A's beat the Blue Jays in 15 innings. "The guy
throws 100 mph; you don't need to help him out. That's when
you've got to tone yourself down even more."

Oakland has also learned that last season's winning formula--men
getting on base by working out walks and then waiting for someone
to hit a home run--may not be as effective this year. "You have to
be able to do the little things to put a winning streak
together," manager Art Howe says. "You can't just hit balls out
of the ballpark all the time."

Still, the A's best chance of climbing back into the West
Division race rests with its pitching staff, which showed signs
last week of rebounding from a dismal start. Oakland had a 2.95
team ERA in its first six games this month. "Our starters have
been better the last couple starts," Beane said last Friday. "If
they're there, we'll always have a shot."

Pleasant Surprises
Look Who's Starting Strong

As a minor leaguer, Doug Mientkiewicz won a batting title at
Class AA New Britain in 1998 and twice led his league in doubles,
but last season those feats seemed like distant memories.
Mientkiewicz was playing for the Triple A Salt Lake Buzz, having
been banished to the minors after having hit .229 with only two
home runs in 327 at bats as a 26-year-old rookie with the Twins
the previous season. The demotion sparked an epiphany: After
having spent his career working counts, searching for perfect
pitches to hit, Mientkiewicz decided it was time to be more
aggressive at the plate. "In the minors, you get pitched around a
lot," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week. "Up here,
they throw first-pitch strikes."

Determined to return to the majors and urged to "swing the bat"
by no less an authority than Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett,
Mientkiewicz did just that, batting .334 for Salt Lake and making
a name for himself as a hero of the gold-medal-winning U.S.
Olympic team. That success has carried over to this season.
Through Sunday the most surprising member of baseball's most
surprising team was second in the American League in hitting
(.404) and third in slugging percentage (.681). He also led the
Twins in home runs (six) and RBIs (26) and had played sparkling
defense at first base, with only one error.

Mientkiewicz isn't the only player to come from nowhere to carry
his team this season. The Cardinals' Albert Pujols, who tied the
major league rookie record for home runs in April with eight, and
through Sunday was hitting .361, has drawn the most attention
(SI, April 16). Here are three other spring surprises:

--Omar Daal, Phillies. Loser of 19 games last season, most in the
majors, the lefthanded Daal has rebounded to anchor the
Philadelphia rotation and is a big reason the Phillies were in
first place at week's end. Through Sunday, Daal was 4-0 with a
4.04 ERA, and the Phillies had won six of the seven games he'd
started. After building his arm strength by pitching winter ball
in his native Venezuela, Daal showed up this spring with an
improved fastball that has made his trademark changeup more
effective. He has also shown improved command, allowing only 2.13
walks per nine innings compared with 4.47 last season.

--David Eckstein, Angels. A 5'8" rookie, Eckstein began the season
as a sub for second baseman Adam Kennedy, who was out with a
broken bone in his right hand. Eckstein hit safely in 11 of his
first 14 games, however, forcing manager Mike Scioscia to find
ways to shoehorn him into the lineup once Kennedy came back.
Eckstein has filled in at shortstop and DH in addition to second,
and two weeks ago he replaced Darin Erstad in the leadoff spot.
Through Sunday he was hitting .318 with a .412 on-base

--Jeff Fassero, Cubs. It hasn't always been pretty (he had a 5.52
ERA through Sunday) but the lefthanded Fassero, 38, breathed life
into his career by filling in ably as Chicago's closer in the
absence of Tom Gordon, who missed the season's first 26 games
with a muscle strain in his right shoulder. Fassero was tied for
the National League lead with nine saves and has performed so
well that manager Don Baylor announced last week that Fassero and
Gordon, who returned to action last week, will share closer
duties. Fassero, who signed with the Cubs as a free agent last
winter, has shown improved speed on his fastball--he's now
consistently in the low 90s--and pinpoint command; he had walked
only three batters in 14 2/3 innings. He was also lethal against
lefthanded hitters, having held them to a .188 average.

Walkless Wonders
The Impetuosity Of Youth

When Red Sox rookie third baseman Shea Hillenbrand drew his first
major league walk, on April 17, in the 51st at bat of his career,
his manager, Jimy Williams, joked about the historic significance
of the occasion. "I asked him if he wanted the ball," Williams
says. Hillenbrand should have kept it, because who knows when
he'll draw another freebie. Through Sunday, Hillenbrand had only
that one base on balls in 123 at bats, putting him on pace for a
whopping five by the end of the season. (The major league record
for fewest walks by a player with at least 500 at bats is six,
set by Art Fletcher of the Giants in 1915.) He had hacked at the
first pitch 43 times, and his average of 3.10 pitches per plate
appearance was the third lowest in the American League.

Yankees rookie second baseman Alfonso Soriano was on a similarly
impatient pace, having drawn one walk in 121 at bats. From Little
League on, players are told that patience at the plate is a
virtue, that a walk is as good as a hit. So how could young and
talented hitters like Hillenbrand and Soriano still be such free
swingers when they get to the big leagues?

Success has a lot to do with it. As of Sunday, Hillenbrand, who
jumped from Double A to the majors this year, was batting .317
and had struck out only 14 times, and he'd impressed the Red Sox
with his ability to make contact and adjustments at the plate.
Soriano was hitting .298 and had whiffed 19 times, still a
relatively low number for such an aggressive batter. "I didn't
get to the big leagues walking," says Hillenbrand. "I got here

"If a young guy can show he can be successful with what he's
doing, you don't mess with it," says Angels hitting coach Mickey
Hatcher. Should a free-swinging hitter start to struggle,
however, Hatcher will work with him on becoming more selective.

"You want guys to be aggressive, but there's a fine line," adds
Giants hitting coach Gene Clines. "A lot of guys haven't had
enough at bats [in the minors] to become smart hitters."

Still, as Marlins shortstop Alex Gonzalez has shown, even the
most aggressive swinger must eventually learn to tone down his
act. Gonzalez had just 37 walks in 1,031 at bats coming into his
fourth season in the majors this spring; only now is he learning
to respect the strike zone. Through Sunday he had drawn 13 walks,
matching his total from last season and two short of his career
high. "When Alex had a good year as a rookie [he hit .277 in
1999], it didn't matter where the ball was," Marlins hitting
coach Jack Maloof says. "He'd swing and hit it. He had some
seeing-eye hits and balls falling for him, and that really didn't
help him in strike-zone recognition."

On Deck

With a Whimper
May 15-17 White Sox at Mariners

Hold the lattes: There should be little late drama to stay awake
for in this series. On one side is Chicago, which tends to fold
its tent late in the game. Through Sunday the White Sox (3-19
when trailing or tied after six innings) were batting an American
League-worst .208 from the seventh inning on, and only two teams
in the majors had scored fewer runs (29) in the late innings.
Those numbers don't figure to improve against the Seattle
bullpen, the league's best in batting average against (.186) and
strikeouts (98).

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Damon, acquired to add speed and aggressiveness to the top of the Oakland lineup, has hit an anemic .204.

COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN Twins surprise Mientkiewicz was at .404.


enemy Lines
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week

Who knows how good he'll be, but Deion Sanders has a pretty good
swing and some bat speed, and he can hit the fastball. He
doesn't have any discipline, but he makes contact. Though he
looks rusty in the outfield, I think he'll help the Reds, who
might now be free to move one of their other outfielders to get
a pitcher....

The Braves really miss Andres Galarraga. They need his bat, but
even when he wasn't hitting he brought such a presence to the
lineup. They don't have that now....

The Mariners can do no wrong right now, but it will be
interesting to see how closer Kazuhiro Sasaki holds up. He's
been in a lot of games. It's not good to have your closer on
pace to make 90 appearances....

The Indians will pass the Twins in the American League Central
within the next week and a half. They're the best team in the
league--great lineup, they catch everything and they have three
really good starters....

The Dodgers look as if they've stabilized, especially with Luke
Prokopec as their fifth starter. His fastball is up to 95 mph,
and he has a hard curve and slider and a good changeup. With the
unbalanced schedule, the other four National League West teams
will beat up one another, and the Dodgers might have the inside
track because of their pitching....

He'll finish out the season, but a lot of people think Red Sox
manager Jimy Williams (who has had his differences with general
manager Dan Duquette) wants out. Don't be surprised if he ends
up in Texas.

in the Box

Royals 12, Twins 10
May 5

The cliche is that defense wins championships, but in this case
good glovework may have cost Minnesota a victory. While
protecting a 10-8 lead with runners on first and third and one
out in the bottom of the ninth, Twins closer LaTroy Hawkins got
Joe Randa to hit a pop foul to the first base side. First baseman
Doug Mientkiewicz leaned over the railing to make a difficult
catch for the second out, but in reaching for the ball he tumbled
into the stands.

At the moment Mientkiewicz disappeared from the field, Randa's
foul-out became a sacrifice fly. According to the rules, base
runners advance one base when a fielder falls out of play while
making a catch. Thus Rey Sanchez, the runner at third, was sent
home, putting Kansas City within a run, and Jermaine Dye, the
runner at first, moved into scoring position. The next hitter,
Dave McCarty, drove in Dye with a single to center, tying the
game, and the Royals won in 12 innings.

High Sierra

Last Thursday, when Rangers outfielder Chad Curtis went on the
disabled list with a strained right hamstring, the player called
up was familiar to Texas fans: Ruben Sierra (right). The
35-year-old Sierra played for the Rangers from 1986 to '92, when
he was the epitome of a five-tool player. In 1989, his best
season, he hit .306 and led the American League with 119 RBIs,
14 triples, 344 total bases and a .543 slugging percentage while
adding 13 outfield assists. Though his best days are behind him,
he ranks among the Rangers' top five in career hits, home runs,
runs batted in, doubles, triples and total bases and is one of
only four active players (below) with 200 home runs, 1,000 RBIs,
50 triples and 100 steals. --David Sabino


Barry Bonds, Giants 508 1,433 69 474
Ellis Burks, Indians 289 1,031 62 172
Rickey Henderson, Padres 284 1,056 63 1,374
Ruben Sierra, Rangers 240 1,054 56 133