There was a time when the Dodgers could lose a top-quality starting pitcher, pull a replacement from Triple A and keep winning. But that's no longer the case, especially when the injured starter is Orel Hershiser. Indeed, the only team that would be hurt more by the loss of its ace is Boston, which as of Sunday was 4-1 in games in which Roger Clemens had started and 6-7 in others.
Hershiser, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder last Friday, is nicknamed Bulldog, and with good reason. He had not missed a turn since joining L.A.'s rotation in 1984—that's 195 straight starts. He also led the National League in innings pitched in each of the last three years; he was the first pitcher to do that since the Braves' Phil Niekro in 1977 through '79. Says Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia, "Orel means much more to us than starting every fifth day. His presence sprinkles down to the rest of the rotation."
Never mind that L.A. threw three shutouts between April 22 and 29; the rotation of Tim Belcher, Fernando Valenzuela, Ramon Martinez, Mike Morgan and John Wetteland isn't up to the Dodgers' traditionally high standards. Belcher (1-2, 4.45 ERA at week's end) has tremendous potential, but Valenzuela has lost arm speed and, until a 5-0 victory over the Cubs last Friday, had gone 71 starts without throwing a shutout. Morgan was 3-0 going into the game against Chicago on Sunday—the first time in his four-season big league career that he had been three games over .500. After losing to the Cubs 4-0, he's a mere 36 games under .500 for his career. Martinez (2-0, 2.25) threw two complete games last week, but at 22, he remains an unknown quantity. Ditto for the 23-year-old Wetteland, who has been promoted from the bullpen to replace Hershiser. As a rookie in '89 he averaged 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings. However, he threw 16 wild pitches in 31 appearances, and was 2-6 with a 4.97 ERA as a starter. Because Wetteland hasn't added an off-speed pitch to his repertoire, several members of the Dodger front office think he should have remained a reliever.
The bullpen could definitely use him, particularly now that closer Jay Howell, who had 28 of L.A.'s 36 saves in 1989, is on the 21-day DL after surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. Don Aase has taken over as the closer, but that's quite a responsibility for a guy with almost as many releases (two) as saves (three) over the last two years. What's more, the Dodgers can't expect to get much help from their Triple A team in Albuquerque. Do you think Los Angeles is second-guessing its decision not to re-sign lefthander John Tudor, who at week's end was 4-0 with a 0.96 ERA for St. Louis?
The real second-guessing, however, involves Hershiser. He was deeply involved in this year's labor negotiations and was among those who urged the players not to work out during the lockout. Early in March, two weeks before the settlement, he said that he hadn't done any throwing and that he wouldn't be ready to pitch on Opening Day. But he pitched anyway, giving up one run on three hits in six innings. Now we find out that he had felt some shoulder stiffness in spring training and hadn't told anyone about it. After struggling against the Cardinals in his fourth start, on April 25, Hershiser said he felt fine. The next day, however, the pain was so intense that he asked for an examination, and last Thursday he tearfully announced the results.
Five years ago, if Hershiser had suffered this much damage to his pitching shoulder-stretched ligaments, a torn rotator cuff and a damaged anterior labrum (a cartilaginous ring that adds to the stability of the shoulder socket)—he wouldn't have had much hope of ever pitching again. But his surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, used a new procedure that he had employed successfully on golfer Jerry Pate and former San Diego quarterback Jim McMahon. Rather than cut through the shoulder muscles to reach the ligaments underneath, as surgeons had done in the past, Jobe employed small retractors to separate the muscle fibers and expose the damaged area, so that the muscles would remain intact after the reconstruction was completed. Jobe is optimistic about Hershiser's chances for making a full recovery by next season.
"With only three weeks of spring training, it was inevitable that there would be an injury to a pitcher," says Belcher. "The lockout turned out to be a big mistake. The owners didn't break the union or change the structure of the agreement. You may not be able to blame it all on the lockout. Orel has been a major leaguer for eight years. But every year he had six weeks to get ready, and this spring he didn't. You'd have to say the lockout is a leading suspect."
Some of the blame also must go to the leaders of the Players Association, Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, both of whom advised players not to train during the lockout. That ridiculous idea was designed to show the owners that the players were in no hurry to return to work. Perhaps someone should have told Fehr and Orza about the spring-training lockout of 1976. That year the players were off for 17 days, but no one instructed them to remain idle.
Hershiser's injury didn't come on one pitch; it apparently was the result of years of wear and tear, so proving that the lockout had anything to do with it is difficult. Still, the rash of injuries to pitchers this spring can't just be a coincidence. Here are some of the other pitchers who have been on the disabled list or have been slowed by injuries: Jose Alvarez, Larry Andersen, Danny Darwin, Ken Dayley, John Dopson, Kelly Downs, Wes Gardner, Teddy Higuera, Bob Kipper, Ben McDonald, Pascual Perez, Jose Rijo, Don Robinson, Dave Schmidt, Rick Sutcliffe, Scott Terry and Mark Williamson. "Of course the lockout has something to do with the injuries," says one American League general manager. "It just goes to show you what can happen when the two sides act like total idiots."
It seems that the high hopes for the 1990 Braves were unrealistic. As of Sunday, Atlanta was 3-13 and heading for its seventh straight losing season. Each defeat brings increased speculation that manager Russ Nixon will be fired. Sources say Braves management wants general manager Bobby Cox to add field managing to his duties, but Cox's health (damaged knees and an ulcer) may make that impossible. That would leave Atlanta advance scout Pat Corrales as a leading candidate for the job. Corrales has told friends that he doesn't want to manage, but the Braves may not give him a choice.
As might be expected, Nixon says it's too early to write off Atlanta. "You can't judge a club until it's played 40 games," he says. "We've got to have patience. Every club I've ever had, I've had to have patience. But I'll reap the benefits someday."
Through Sunday, Nixon had a 209-320 (.395) record as a manager. And the last four teams he has managed—the 1982 and '83 Reds and the '88 and '89 Braves—have finished in the cellar. The only manager who has been hired after consecutive last-place finishes in his first four seasons is Preston Gomez, who debuted with the Padres in '69.
It's hard to blame Nixon entirely for Atlanta's troubles this year. Leftfielder Lonnie Smith reported to camp 19 pounds overweight. At week's end, ace pitcher John Smoltz was 1-7 since last year's All-Star break. The Braves' vaunted young pitching staff allowed five or more runs in 10 of Atlanta's first 16 games. Last Saturday, the Braves acquired Charley Kerfeld—and his 16.20 ERA-from Houston to shore up their bullpen.
Atlanta's off-season moves haven't been helpful, either. New catcher Ernie Whitt was well past his defensive prime two years ago. And free agent first baseman Nick Esasky had six hits, no RBIs. 14 strikeouts and five errors in his first nine games, and now he has a sprained right shoulder.
The Braves are not the only ones not living up to their billing. Here are some other early-season mystery stories:
•Last year the Giants had the best home record in the National League (53-28). This year, however, they lost nine of their first 10 games at Candlestick Park. Last year San Francisco became the 33rd team in this century not to lose four games in a row during the regular season. But this year the Giants dropped four straight in the third week of the season. The Giants' starting pitching has been so bad that the front office may recall lefty Bob Knepper (7-12, 5.13 ERA in 1989) from Phoenix. And the bullpen has been even worse (chart, left).
•Last week Cub first baseman Mark Grace struck out three times in a game for the first time in his two-year career. He also made three errors in a game for the first time. An excellent defensive team in 1989, Chicago made 24 errors in its first 19 games. In those same games the Cubs scored more than four runs only three times. After a 13-3 loss in San Diego on April 24—extending what would become a six-game losing streak—Cub manager Don Zimmer held a team meeting, matching his total for last year. "I didn't raise hell," he says. "I didn't know where to begin, and second, I would have been in there for three hours."
•On Saturday the Royals fell into last place in the American League West for the first time since June 27, 1984. Because of their slow start, they will need to put together a 94-50 record (.653) the rest of the way to reach their preseason goal of 100 wins. Losing rightfielder Danny Tartabull to a torn muscle in his right leg before the second game of the season has hurt. Kansas City scored three runs or fewer in nine of its first 19 games, and at one point the Royals went 52 innings without a home run. How power-hungry are they? Well, at one point, manager John Wathan used outfielder Willie Wilson, who has 39 career homers in 15 years, to hit in the fifth spot in the order. And on April 28, Wathan started a lineup that had produced only 37 homers last season.
After the Pirates took sole possession of first place on April 22, for the first time since May 2, 1988, outfielder R.J. Reynolds explained their new frame of mind: "When we win a game now, we don't jump around waving pompoms. It used to be if we won a game, it was as if we had just won the seventh game of the World Series."
...Reds outfielder Eric Davis, who will be sidelined for a couple of weeks with a knee injury, has never played more than 135 games in any of his six seasons. But he's the only player in major league history to hit 25-plus homers in four straight years with fewer than 475 at bats in each of them....
Tiger manager Sparky Anderson said he wants to go by his real name, George. Now that he's 56, he said, he's too old to be called Sparky.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Umpires are supposed to be models of integrity. So it came as a surprise when National League ump Bob Engel was arrested on April 21 for shoplifting in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. A major league umpire since 1965, Engel was allegedly caught in the act of stealing seven boxes of Score baseball cards (valued at $143.98) by the store's security officer, according to Bakersfield police. If convicted, Engel could face a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. He also could lose his job. Last week National League president Bill White gave Engel a leave of absence "so that he can direct his energy toward the charges that have been leveled against him." Engel has refused to comment publicly on the situation, though he told police that he took the cards to "collect and trade them." One collector's item that wasn't among the cards the umpire is charged with stealing was a Bob Engel card issued by T & M Sports of Spring Valley, Calif., last year. It is noteworthy for the answers Engel gave to questions that appeared on the back.
HOMER OF THE WEEK
On April 25, Boston's Bill Buckner, not exactly a speedster, hit an inside-the-park home run at Fenway Park against the Angels when rightfielder Claudell Washington, who has since been traded to the Yankees, fell into the stands trying to catch the ball. Said Buckner, "I don't know what's a better story—the inside-the-park homer, or that it kept me on the roster and made me the every-day first baseman."
Phillie pitcher Don Carman, a .047 career hitter entering the season, was batting 1.000 after getting a line drive single off the Cardinals' Frank DiPino on April 21. Carman, who can't remember ever having hit a ball in the air to an outfielder, said that even Ted Williams never hit 1.000, or .500, for that matter. "Although if he had those five years he lost [to service in the Marine Corps], he might have done it one of those years." Carman was nonchalant about the attention his belt received. "Yes, Peter Jennings called," he said. "He wanted the clip."
BY THE NUMBERS
•Last Thursday, Texas's Nolan Ryan got his 12th career one-hitter and struck out 16 batters—a club record for a nine-inning game—in a 1-0 win over the White Sox. Since turning 40 in 1987, Ryan has fanned 16 twice. The only American League pitcher in this century to strike out 16 in a game after age 30 was Rube Waddell in 1908. He was 32.
•Since Cub second baseman Ryne Sandberg's last error—on June 20, 1989—Ryan has struck out 219 batters, Bo Jackson has whiffed 117 times and Bobby Bonilla has committed 21 errors.
•As of Sunday, St. Louis pitcher John Tudor, who missed virtually all of 1989 with shoulder injuries, was 54-22 as a Cardinal. With the Red Sox, Pirates and Dodgers he was 55-46.
•Philadelphia won four straight games before losing 12-7 to the Reds on April 25. The Phillies haven't won five consecutive games since Aug. 22, 1987. Every other major league team has had at least one five-game victory streak since then. The A's have had 11.
•Detroit pitchers went 28 innings in a row without a 1-2-3 inning.
•When outfielder Daryl Boston was released by the White Sox last week, he had a perfect record of sorts at the plate. In 1,481 major league plate appearances, he has never been hit by a pitch.