A swing makeover got Vernon Wells off to a blazing start, giving the Blue Jaysone of the league's most potent lineups
The reinventionof Vernon Wells as a hitter began last November, in a high school batting cagea two-minute drive from his home in Arlington, Texas. Two months before hewould typically start getting ready for the next season the Blue Jayscenterfielder began working out at Bowie High up to five times a week, alone inthe cage with the soft-toss machine and seven dozen baseballs he had boughtonline.
"After ourfinal game last year I sat at my locker and reflected on the last couple ofyears and how disappointing they were," says Wells, who in 2004 and '05fell well short of the gaudy numbers--.317 batting average, 33 homers and 117RBIs--he put up in his breakout season three years ago. "It all hit mepretty quickly: I'd better start making some changes. The goal was to startover and relearn my swing."
A righthandedpull hitter who was being outsmarted by pitchers he had drilled previously, the27-year-old Wells had to figure out how to hit to all fields. He figured itout.
A year afterbatting a career-low .269, Wells is off to his best start as a major leaguer,hitting .324 with a .376 on-base percentage, 15 homers and 44 RBIs throughSunday. And the high-scoring lineup (5.8 runs per game, third best in themajors), which also features the American League's leading hitter (rightfielderAlex Rios, .360) and No. 2 home run hitter (third baseman Troy Glaus, 17), hadToronto at 31--24 and 2 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East--the team'sbest start since 1993, the year it last won a World Series.
"The BlueJays are dangerous," says White Sox lefthander Mark Buehrle, who gave upthree hits to Wells in a 4--2 Chicago win on April 15. "The lineup is oneof the best out there. At the heart of the order you're facing Rios, who isemerging as a great young hitter, then Wells, then Glaus. That's as scary as itgets. With Wells getting back to being the hitter he was a few years ago,they're going to be tough to beat."
Actually, Wellsmade himself into a different hitter than he was in '03, when he finishedeighth in the AL MVP vote in his second full season in the majors."[Pulling the ball] was his security blanket," says Blue Jays hittingcoach Mickey Brantley. "He was successful doing that [in '03], but he alsowasn't confident in taking a pitch outside to rightfield." The scoutingreport on Wells--attack him away, work the outside corner--got around, andpitchers made the adjustment.
So Wells devotedhis November and December workouts to learning to hit to the opposite field."I had set up [the soft-toss machine] to flip balls away," he says."I kept my hands inside the ball and hit the other way. I didn't pull theball for a month and a half." Wells's overhaul continued into springtraining; every morning before regular batting practice Brantley had Wells takeat least 90 additional swings. "He has bundles of talent," saysBrantley, "but when you're that talented, sometimes you think you don'thave to work as hard. That's not true--and Vernon finally understood that thisyear."
Usually a slowstarter--he entered this season with a career .221 average in April--Wells hit.396 with nine home runs and 25 RBIs in the first month this season, whilesuccessfully driving the ball to all fields. (Four of his April homers were tocenter or rightfield.) He homered three times in a game against the Red Soxlast week, and Toronto fans chanted, "M-V-P!"
"Myconfidence is higher than it's ever been," says Wells, who is also adefensive asset, having won Gold Gloves in '04 and '05. "But if I'velearned anything over the last few months, it's that I've got to keep workinghard. It pays off."
Twins Have the Giants to Thank
Growing up in SanCristóbal, Dominican Republic, Francisco Liriano was a lanky, athleticcenterfielder with a strong left arm who dreamed of becoming the next KenGriffey Jr. But after a Giants scout discovered him in 2000, he asked Liriano,then 16, to throw off a mound. Liriano had never pitched before, yet hisfastball was clocked in the mid-90s. "I still wanted to play in theoutfield," he recalls. "I didn't want to pitch."
Then the Giantsoffered him the choice of a $900,000 bonus to sign as a pitcher or a couplehundred thousand dollars less as an outfielder, and Liriano changed his mind.Now, after one trade and five minor league seasons, Liriano has cracked theTwins' rotation and is becoming one of the game's top young pitchers. Afterleading the majors in strikeouts per nine innings through May 18 as a reliever,the 22-year-old Liriano was given a shot as a starter and went 3--0 with an0.56 ERA in his first three tries.
Liriano arrivedin Minnesota in November 2003 as part of one of the most lopsided trades inrecent years. The Twins dealt catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants forLiriano; righthander Joe Nathan, who has become a top closer; and Boof Bonser,a promising righty who joined the rotation two days after Liriano. (Followingone rocky season in San Francisco, Pierzynski was released--and then helpeddrive the White Sox to a world championship.) Liriano has been compared toMinnesota's ace lefty Johan Santana, 27, due to their similar career tracks andexpectations, but Liriano throws harder (up to 98 mph) than the 2004 AL CyYoung winner and mixes in a knee-buckling slider that has been clocked at91.
Says manager RonGardenhire of Liriano, "He has better pitches than Santana did at thatage."
Amid trade talkslast November the Marlins told the Red Sox that if they wanted ace righthanderJosh Beckett, they would have to take declining third baseman Mike Lowell(right) and his $9 million salary. Boston agreed, and seven months laterLowell, 32, is a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. After batting .236 witha .360 slugging percentage last season, Lowell led AL third basemen in hitting(.320) and extra-base hits this year while making a run at one of the game'slongest-standing records: With 23 doubles, he was on pace for 69, which wouldbreak the alltime mark of 67 set by Boston's Earl Webb in 1931. No player hashit even 60 since 1936. "It's gratifying to have a start like this,"Lowell says, "because the Red Sox took a big gamble on me."
MIKE CARLSON/ICON SMI (WELLS)
TWOPOUNDERS - At week's end Wells and Rios (inset) had combined for 25 homers and85 RBIs.
LARRY GOREN/ICON SMI (RIOS)
RICHARD SCHULTZ/WIREIMAGE.COM (LOWELL)