The player known as the Last Expo--he wore the blanc, bleu et rouge while on a major league All-Star team that played exhibitions in Japan last November--centerfielder Brad Wilkerson (right) is now the Nationals' leading man. He smashed 11 hits through Sunday, hitting for the cycle against the Phillies. Wilkerson, who is the only active player (and 26th in history) to hit for the cycle twice in his career, may resemble and hit like a young Larry Walker, but manager Frank Robinson likes the patient Wilkerson as his leadoff hitter. "I don't know where he fits ideally," says Robinson, "but where he's been most productive is at the top of the lineup."
Last year in addition to Wilkerson, eight other National League players had at least 32 homers and a .374 on-base percentage. Unlike Wilkerson, those eight--Adrian Beltre, Barry Bonds, Adam Dunn, Jim Edmonds, Todd Helton, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Thome--all hit in the middle of the order and received MVP votes. Wilkerson is proving his appearance in such elite company was no fluke.
The Red Sox have seen Yankees closer Mariano Rivera (below) so much lately--29 times since 2003, including the postseason--they've learned how to hit his once-devastating cutter. Boston's lefthanded hitters open their hips early on the pitch to get the head of the bat on the cutter, which at its best breaks bat handles. Moreover, as the Red Sox showed again last week with two ninth-inning comebacks on Rivera, they don't chase his pitches that move out of the strike zone. And Rivera, sapped of the usual presence and confidence he carries against other teams, nibbles more against Boston.
Over the past two-plus seasons the Red Sox forced Rivera to throw significantly more pitches per inning and put nearly twice as many runners on against him as other teams did.
Pitches Per Inn.
Here's one welcome consequence of baseball's decision to release the names of players who violate the sport's performance-enhancing drug policy: It finally kills the myth that steroids are just for home run hitters. One major leaguer, slap-hitting outfielder Alex Sanchez (right) of Tampa Bay, and 41 minor leaguers had been identified through Sunday. Of the 42 violators 18 are pitchers. Only four of the 24 busted position players hit more than nine home runs last year. One major league personnel director says that when he viewed a list of six-year minor league free agents who were suspended for banned substances last season, 16 of the 29 players were pitchers. So while many media reports and Congress fixate on record-breaking sluggers, the use of steroids and like substances pervades all aspects of the game. If the tougher testing policy in the majors is discouraging usage, fatigue of pitchers will bear watching deep into the season.
The three biggest long shots who made Opening Day rosters:
1. Bill Pulsipher, LHP, Cardinals. At 31 he joined fellow former Mets phenom Jason Isringhausen in St. Louis after three years out of the big leagues. Pulsipher appeared DL-bound after injuring his right hamstring on a follow-through in Sunday's loss to the Phillies.
2. Pete Orr, 2B, Braves. Undrafted out of high school and junior college, he spent four years as a minor league backup before hitting .320 last year at Triple A Richmond.
3. Jeff Cirillo, 3B, Brewers. He played in Mexico last winter and then after a series of phone calls to G.M. Doug Melvin, Cirillo talked his way into the Brewers' camp on a minor league deal.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (WILKERSON, RIVERA)
GENE J. PUSKAR/AP (SANCHEZ)