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Inside Baseball

Close Call
Richard Hidalgo hopes to bounce back after surviving an
off-season shooting

Astros outfielder Richard Hidalgo was parking his SUV in front of
a friend's house in Valencia, Venezuela, last November when
trouble suddenly stared him in the face. A man appeared in front
of the vehicle, pulled a gun and aimed it at him. Another man
appeared at the driver's side window. He, too, aimed a gun at

If I get out, Hidalgo thought, I'm dead. If I stay, I'm dead.

So he slammed his foot on the accelerator and sped away in a
frantic attempt to save his life. It worked. As Hidalgo drove
home, thankful to be alive, he felt something dripping onto his
leg. It was blood. Only then did he realize that he'd been shot
in the left forearm. He headed for a hospital.

Doctors in Houston later found what they thought was evidence of
nerve damage in his arm, but that has since been dismissed as
temporary nerve trauma. A single bullet passed through his
forearm without striking bone, ligament or artery. Hidalgo, 27,
is fine, ready to begin spring training this month without
limitations. "He's one lucky man, and he knows it," Astros
general manager Gerry Hunsicker says.

With an escape like that, Hidalgo already has the inside track on
National League comeback player of the year. Truth is, Houston
figured Hidalgo would contend for the award even without such
frightening drama. Once among the game's best young power
hitters, Hidalgo suffered a swift decline over the past three
seasons, in which his home runs (44, 19, 15), RBIs (122, 80, 48)
and batting average (.314, .275, .235) all nosedived. He had only
two homers and seven RBIs over the final three months of last
year, during which a strained right hip cut his playing time and

Hidalgo's troubles began after his breakout 2000 season when he
added about 15 pounds of muscle to his 6'3", 220-pound frame,
costing him flexibility and the easy snap in his swing. He
retooled his workouts this winter--mostly in Florida after the
shooting--to lose muscle mass.

The signing of free-agent second baseman Jeff Kent prompted
Houston to move second baseman Craig Biggio to centerfield,
rightfielder Lance Berkman to leftfield and leftfielder Daryle
Ward to the Dodgers for a minor league pitcher in a salary dump,
leaving Hidalgo the rightfield spot.

"We have three MVP-type players in the middle of our lineup,"
Hunsicker said. "Kent and [first baseman Jeff] Bagwell already
have their MVP awards, and Berkman's day is coming. Now Richard
can hit sixth or seventh. If he hits 25 to 30 homers and drives
in 80 to 90 runs, which are very reasonable projections for him,
our lineup looks very dangerous."

Dangerous? The word has new meaning for Hidalgo.

Read Tom Verducci's Inside Baseball column every Tuesday at

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP Hidalgo's career hit the skids after he signed a $32 million deal two years ago.


Aching to Play
Here are four young players whose careers were derailed by
injuries and are now looking to make an impact this season.

1. Alex Escobar, 24, Indians The key player in the deal that sent
Roberto Alomar to the Mets, Escobar tore up his left knee last
March and didn't play last year after reconstructive surgery. The
Indians still believe the Venezuelan centerfielder can be a star,
though with two of his last four seasons shortened by injuries,
he needs at bats in Triple A first.

2. Gil Meche, 24, Mariners The 6'3" righthander endured shoulder
trouble in each of the last two years but already is throwing in
Arizona at 100%. Meche has the power stuff to be a
front-of-the-rotation starter, though Seattle will likely break
him in behind Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro and Ryan

3. Rick Ankiel, 23, Cardinals Mark Wohlers overcame his
mystifying wildness only after he blew out his elbow and had to
learn how to pitch all over again. Now Ankiel--working out of the
bullpen--is charting the same course.

4. Erubiel Durazo, 29, Athletics Give him 550 at bats, and if the
DH produces at his career rate, he'll smash 35 homers and drive
in 110 runs. But Durazo missed half of last season with a
fractured right wrist and a strained muscle in his side, limiting
him to 222 at bats--which was still a career high. He must stay
healthy and prove he can hit lefties.