The California Angels were in last place with a 24-40 record on June 15, but they have gone 33-14 since then and by last week had moved into third place in the American League West behind Oakland and Minnesota. Says Angel DH Brian Downing, "I'm proud of the way we've played after everyone gave us up for dead."
"We always believed we were better, but it was pretty frustrating," says manager Cookie Rojas, who took over the job of rebuilding the team when Gene Mauch abruptly retired last March. "We still haven't gotten the pitching we can have, and that makes our future look even better."
For two months the Angels were set back by injuries to several players, including Downing and outfielder Devon White. Starting pitcher Kirk McCaskill hadn't been effective since his April 1987 elbow surgery, while third baseman Jack Howell and first baseman Wally Joyner had inexplicably lost their power strokes. But once White returned to full speed—he's batted .313 since June 16—the Angels became a different team. "White is right there with [Oakland's! Jose Canseco and [Boston's] Ellis Burks as the best players in the league under 26," says one American League scout. On July 7, Rojas made White his leadoff man, and California has won 20 of its 25 games since.
The Angels were last in the league in homers at the All-Star break, but since then they have hit 28 in 24 games. Joyner has hit .341 in that period, to raise his average to .294. Reliever Bryan Harvey's four wins and 11 saves since his April 21 call-up from Edmonton have stabilized the bullpen, so Rojas feels that once McCaskill and fellow starters Chuck Finley and Mike Witt get going, the Angels will be running in top gear. "If the A's weren't going so well, we could even be talking about first place," says Rojas. A's or no A's, the rebuilding of the Angels is back on schedule.
BRAVES' NEW WORLD
Henry Aaron has reportedly told friends that he will resign his job as Atlanta Braves player personnel director by the end of the season. Aaron has not played a very important role in general manager Bobby Cox's renovation of what was a pitifully depleted organization. But there have been some positive signs lately. Shortstop Andres Thomas and second baseman Ronnie Gant together lead all National League middle-infield duos in homers with 24, and when Jeff Blauser is ready to move up from Richmond, Gant will shift over to third. Fireballing righthander John Smoltz, whom Cox acquired from Detroit for Doyle Alexander last season, has made a strong impression in his three major league starts, going 1-2 with a 3.63 ERA. ("They didn't tell me he threw 150 miles an hour," says San Diego's Tim Flannery.) And by this time next year the Braves should have added lefthander Derek Lilliquist and righthander Tommy Greene to their young starting rotation.
A REAL SAVE
The hero of the week is Chicago White Sox trainer Herm Schneider, who saved first baseman Greg Walker's life by prying his mouth open with scissors to keep him from swallowing his tongue after Walker suffered a seizure during pregame warm-ups on July 30. Says Schneider, who has been the head trainer for the White Sox since 1979, "On a scale of one to 10, he was 9-plus dead." Walker's seizure was caused by a focal infection that went to his brain. Schneider told Walker's friends that the scariest part of the ordeal was that Walker was conscious as he was swallowing his tongue and could do nothing about it.
The good news around the White Sox is that righthanded reliever Bobby Thigpen has emerged as one of the American League's premier stoppers. He throws a consistent 95-mph fastball and has had a hand in 29 of Chicago's 49 victories.
Considering how successful veteran minor league managers Joe Morgan of Boston and Jim Leyland of Pittsburgh have been lately, isn't it time for a major league club to give Indianapolis Indians skipper Joe Sparks a call? Indianapolis has a 73-44 record, the second best in baseball, despite losing seven players to its parent club, the Montreal Expos. And Sparks has led the Indians to the American Association championship two years in a row. "Joe's as good as they come," says Expo minor league director Dan Duquette. "He just happens to be behind Buck Rodgers, who everyone acknowledges is one of the best managers in the game."
DODGING THE BULLET
With Fernando Valenzuela probably out for the season with a sore shoulder, Los Angeles Dodger general manager Fred Claire is trying to be patient in his search for another starting pitcher. Claire wants to see how 43-year-old Don Sutton fares now that he's back from a minor league injury-rehab stint, whether Mario Soto can come back from his arm injury and if, as some within the Dodger organization feel, 20-year-old righthander Ramon Martinez (5-2 at Albuquerque) is ready for the bigs.
The Dodgers want a lefty to take Valenzuela's place, but if the cost is too high for, say, Don Carman of Philadelphia or potential free-agent Mike Flanagan of Toronto (whom the Blue Jays do not want to trade), Los Angeles would love to reacquire Texas Rangers knuckleballer Charlie Hough, a Tom Lasorda favorite when Hough notched 60 saves for the Dodgers from 1970 to '80. Hough is available, but most contending teams are reluctant to trade for him now because there isn't enough time to train a catcher to handle Hough's knuckler. But the Dodgers have Rick Dempsey, who caught Tom Candiotti in Cleveland, and Mike Scioscia, who caught Hough before he left L.A.
If they could, the Dodgers would take back righty starter Bob Welch, whom they traded to Oakland during the off-season. Of the three players they received for Welch, only righty reliever Jay Howell (14 saves, 2.23 ERA) has been productive; shortstop Alfredo Griffin is hitting .158 and reliever Jesse Orosco's fastball is down to 82 mph.
By the way, how would you like to make the Dodgers' decisions this winter? Their free-agent list will include Valenzuela, Orosco, Howell, Griffin, Soto, Sutton, Pedro Guerrero, Steve Sax, Mike Marshall and Alejandro Pena.
BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
With his Milwaukee Brewers sinking in the American League East despite having the league's best team ERA, general manager Harry Dalton looked around for some power hitters and discovered, he says, "The greatest shortage in the minors, other than talented catchers, is right-handed power hitters." Milwaukee's farm system has two top power prospects in infielder Gary Sheffield and outfielder Greg Vaughn at Denver and El Paso, respectively, but about the only other top righthanded power prospects are Boston's outfielder-first baseman Carlos Quintana and the Yankees' third baseman Hensley (Bam-Bam) Meulens, And Meulens, scouts say, not only needs more than a year to develop as a hitter, but he also needs to find another position to play.
THE CINCINNATI BLUES, CONT.
The struggles of baseball's biggest underachievers—the Cincinnati Reds—continued last week. Two of their three best starting pitchers ripped into the club.
"Where's the team aspect, the togetherness, the enthusiasm I heard and read about before I came to the Reds this spring?" said righthander Jose Rijo, who has gone 3-4 in his last eight starts despite a 2.04 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 57‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings.
Lefty Danny Jackson added: "Sometimes it seems as if they don't care. We need every individual on this team to be ready. If not, sit down or take your losing attitude to another team."
The Reds thought long and hard about Atlanta's offer to trade slugger Dale Murphy for struggler Eric Davis. First, Cincinnati demanded that the Braves throw in minor league pitching prospect Tommy Greene. Then the Reds decided that they were too far behind the Dodgers for such a deal to make sense. Still, Cincinnati management is quite unhappy with Davis's attitude, not to mention his poor production. At the end of last week he was batting .273 with 20 homers and 59 RBIs. Last year he hit .293 with 37 homers and 100 RBIs.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Pittsburgh Penguin star Mario Lemieux threw out the first ball at Three Rivers Stadium on Aug. 3, so, naturally, a hockey game broke out. When Pirate starter John Smiley hit Montreal's Hubie Brooks in the back, both dugouts emptied and a brawl ensued.
"What do you expect when a hockey player throws out the first pitch?" said Pirate pitcher Bob Walk. Someone asked Walk, who wasn't in the game, why he jumped on the pile of bodies near the pitcher's mound. "I was kind of practicing for winning the World Series," he said.
GIVE HIM A BREAK
Seattle lefty Steve Trout allowed seven hits and six earned runs in 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings on Aug. 2, bringing his ERA to 8.12 and the opponents' batting average against him to .365. "I'm throwing the ball good but not getting any breaks," said Trout. "I have a great future here."
SEASON OF THE WITCH
The San Francisco Giants already had four starting pitchers disabled when Kelly Downs missed a start with a sore shoulder and Rick Reuschel strained a hamstring muscle. The Giants were going to call up lefthander Dennis Cook from Phoenix. But when Cook was warming up during his last start there, he cracked a rib.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the three worst-hitting pitchers of all time (with at least 100 at bats) are Ron Herbel, Giants 1963-71, 6 for 206 (.029); Andy McGaffigan, Expos 1981-88, 5 for 124 (.040); and Ed Klepfer, Yankees, White Sox, Indians 1911-1919, 6 for 125 (.048).
Montreal's Pascual Perez is 28 for 268 lifetime (.104), including 0 for 34 (.000) this season. He is just 36 hitless at bats from the single-season record of 70 straight, set by hurler Bob Buhl with the Braves and Cubs in 1962.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
•Manager Whitey Herzog on his St. Louis Cardinals: "We're like a soccer team. When we're two runs down, it's over."
•Don Sutton, who pitched into the seventh inning for the first time since May 8, albeit for the Dodgers' Class A Bakersfield farm club: "I finally got to hear Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
•Cleveland Indians first baseman Terry Francona at the Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown: "I wonder how many more 10 RBI seasons I need to get back here?"
•Milwaukee utility man Jim Adduci's batting average (.237) is higher than his on-base percentage (.230). He has no walks and just two sacrifice flies in 59 at bats.
•Reliever Doug Jones has gotten either a win or a save in 26 of the Indians' 53 victories. All but seven of the other wins were complete-game victories for the starters.
•Texas Rangers righthander Jeff Russell has allowed three grand slam homers this season to Boston: Ellis Burks and Mike Greenwell of the Red Sox, and Daryl Boston of the White Sox.
•Cardinals lefthander Joe Magrane has won one game (and lost six) since he beat the Expos last Sept. 29. His ERA since then is 3.06.
•Since he was called up from Indianapolis on June 21, Montreal second baseman-shortstop Rex (the Wonder Dog) Hudler has 33 hits, including 11 infield singles and 6 bunts. He has also stolen 20 bases in 22 attempts.
•On June 8, Cincinnati traded left-handed starter Dennis Rasmussen to San Diego for righthanded starter Candy Sierra. As a Padre, Rasmussen is 8-1 and has beaten the Reds three times. Sierra, meanwhile, has allowed 49 hits and 25 earned runs in 40⅖ innings at Nashville.
•The Boston Red Sox have averaged 3.69 runs in Roger Clemens's starts at Fenway Park and 6.26 runs in games started by all other Bosox pitchers at home.
•Former Kansas City Royals pitchers David Cone, Danny Jackson and Melido Perez have 36 wins between them. Kansas City's current big three of Mark Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen and Charlie Leibrandt have 32.
PUTTING OUT THOSE FIRES
PERCENTAGE OF GAMES SAVED
SOURCE: STATS, INC.
* Through Aug. 6