WHAT THE ECK?

Dennis Eckersley hasn't changed much, even though his role has. As April ended, the Oakland Athletics' righthander led the majors in saves with nine. He had succeeded in every save opportunity this season and had not allowed a run. "I still don't really like this role," says Eckersley, a 12-year starter who was moved to the bullpen after the Athletics acquired him from the Chicago Cubs last year. "But I'll do whatever they ask me. Actually, I really can't believe I can do it." This is the same Eckersley who was one of the best and brashest of pitchers in the late '70s. Brash? En route to throwing a no-hitter for the Cleveland Indians in 1977, he got two strikes on a California Angels batter, pointed to Jerry Remy in the on-deck circle and shouted, "You're next." Eckersley was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1978 and promptly won 20 games while introducing a new dialect to the clubhouse. To Eck, liquor was "oil" before Oil Can Boyd was out of high school. Money was "iron," and he referred to himself as "the Bridge Master." Giving up a homer was being "taken to the bridge," and he was a frequent provider of gopher balls.

In August 1979, Eckersley was 16-5 when his right shoulder started hurting. He struggled through the rest of the season, winning just one game and losing five. "If I knew then what I know now about conditioning and taking care of yourself, I'd have been back faster," says Eckersley. As he got older and married for a second time (his wife, Nancy, is Barbara Stock's stand-in as Robert Urich's girlfriend in TV's Spenser: For Hire), he also began using off-season rehab to strengthen his shoulder.

"I'm in much better shape at 33 than I was when I was 23," he says. "My fastball's come back to where I can throw it 90 miles an hour sometimes. Because of that, I can come inside on lefthanders again, which I wouldn't do for years."

Still, Eckersley loses velocity if he pitches on consecutive days, so Oakland Manager Tony La Russa tries not to use him in back-to-back games. But the Athletics' bullpen is loaded, with raw-boned Eric Plunk and Gene Nelson as righthanded setup men and Rick Honeycutt and Greg Cadaret from the left side. That pen, plus a reliable rotation led by ace Dave Stewart (6-0 at week's end), gives Oakland a pitching staff that rivals the Kansas City Royals'. The Athletics had 14 saves in April, compared with four for the Royals, and Eckersley could spell the difference come summer's dog days, when the starters pitch fewer innings.

WHAT HAPPENED TO...

Sam McDowell was one of those players who was going to be great. Everyone said so. Only Sudden Sam never quite got there. When he didn't achieve greatness in Cleveland from 1961-71, the Giants traded Gaylord Perry and Frank Duffy for him so he could be great in San Francisco. He wasn't.

Here are five more recent can't-miss kids who have yet to reach superstardom:

•Von (Five-for-One) Hayes, Phillies. He's a pretty good player, but he's no better now than he was when Philadelphia got him from the Indians for five players in 1982.

•Leon Durham, Cubs. He has 69 RBIs to show for all of last season plus the first month of '88. The Cubs couldn't give him away during spring training so they could make room for Mark (Amazing) Grace.

•Mike Moore, Mariners. When he won 17 games in 1985. he seemed to have overcome being rushed from Oral Roberts to the big leagues. But he has slipped. Some scouts blame an unusual hitch in his delivery; others cite a conflict with manager Dick Williams. Perhaps the fault lies not with Moore but with the Mariners. Every year we hear about Seattle's great young talent, but the franchise has never had a winning record. The club says it needs righthanded power and a leadoff hitter. How about Danny Tartabull, Ivan Calderon, Darnell Coles or Phil Bradley? The M's traded all of them away in the last three seasons.

•Chili Davis, Angels. He is one of those do-it-all guys who let his legs get heavy. His time from home to first went from 4.1 seconds to 4.6 in five years. Davis evolved into a decent player using only a fraction of the tools that earned him acclaim.

•Oddibe McDowell, Rangers. He was the first of the '84 Olympians to make the majors, and he hit .266 in 1986. But some members of the Rangers' coaching staff were apparently right when they said in '84 that McDowell was as good coming out of Arizona State as he would ever be. He hit .241 in '87 and as May 1988 began, he was hitting .213.

IT'S THAT TIME AGAIN
The New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays, having lost top starters Rick Rhoden and Jimmy Key, respectively, to injury, are both stepping up efforts to deal for pitching help. Atlanta Braves general manager Bobby Cox played one team against the other and got solid offers for lefthander Zane Smith. The Yankees offered Atlanta two former "untouchables" from their farm system, third baseman Hensley (Bam-Bam) Meulens and outfielder Jay Buhner, but Cox wanted a pitcher. Toronto offered righthanded pitcher Jose Nunez and two minor league outfield prospects, Junior Felix and Geronimo Berroa, to the Braves. The Yanks also want to look at lefty Bob Knepper of the Houston Astros, but Knepper missed a start with a bad elbow. Both New York and Toronto have talked to the Orioles about righty Mike Boddicker.

WHO'S COUNTING?

It had been 208 days since the Orioles last won a regular-season game. On Friday they beat the Chicago White Sox 9-0 to snap their record season-opening losing streak at 21 games, two short of the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies' within-a-season record. After the win, Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, dressed in a tattered, champagne-stained suit he had last worn in 1983, when he was general manager of the White Sox and they won the AL West division crown, was stopped by a fan as he made his way through the stands toward the field. "Can I pour beer on you?" asked the fan. "Sure, celebrate," said Hemond, and the fan doused him.

Inside the clubhouse, there were three cases of bubbly, but few Baltimore players went for it. "Everyone expects us to be jumping around and celebrating," said pitcher Boddicker. "We're all glad this nightmare is over. We're sick of being followed around and laughed at. We won a game. We're also 1-21."

By Sunday, the Orioles were 1-23.

pick one player from each major league team. Get Mattingly from the Yankees....

The Slapper was thinking the other day, if you're going to have a team go bad, do it some place that doesn't deserve a ballclub, like Tampa. Or Atlanta."

The real author of the column was John Schulian, the story editor on the TV show. Schulian turned to television after a distinguished career as a newspaper reporter and columnist in Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia.

APRIL HEAT

California obviously agrees with Johnny Ray, who was a Pittsburgh Pirate a year ago. Here are this season's top April hitters, along with their averages for the same period last year.

April 1987

April 1988

Johnny Ray
Angels

.256

.438

Pete O'Brien
Rangers

.194

.437

Mike Scioscia
Dodgers

.321

.404

Dave Winfield
Yankees

.342

.398

Ellis Burks
Red Sox

.385

(In minor league)

SOURCE: STATS, INC.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)