MAKING IT LOOK E-Z
In winning eight of their last 10 games through Sunday, the White Sox emerged as the team to beat in the American League West. Their offense has a variety of weapons, their defense is much improved from last season, and most important, the E-Z Boys—reliever Roberto Hernandez and starters Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez—are off to a terrific start.
Converted to a reliever in 1992, Hernandez, 28, suddenly developed into an overpowering closer in the second half of last season. And he's at it again this year, with sewn saves, a 1.65 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 16‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings through Sunday.
Even though Fernandez and Alvarez were major disappointments last season, Chicago pinned this year's pennant chances on the hope that one—or both—of these pitchers would blossom as a quality starter behind ace Jack McDowell (7-1). At week's end righthander Fernandez and lefthander Alvarez, both 23, were a combined 9-2, and the Sox were 22-13 and 2½ games ahead in the West.
May 23, 1993
Fernandez (5-2, with Chicago getting shut out in both of his losses) had a 2.62 ERA, the rest of the league was hitting .207 against him, and he had allowed more than two runs in only two of his eight starts. That's what the White Sox were looking for in '92, when Fernandez, who's from Miami Beach, went 8-11 with a 4.27 ERA and even spent three weeks in the minors at midseason.
Maybe the White Sox were expecting too much too soon? After all, Fernandez made only eight minor league starts before his major league debut in 1990 at age 20. For the last two seasons he has had to learn to pitch on the game's highest level, with the added pressure of pitching for a contender. "This year I'm just putting together a lot of little pieces," he says.
The big difference for Fernandez has been the development of his off-speed pitches. In his first 2½ major league seasons, he tried to throw the ball past hitters whenever he got into trouble. It didn't work. "If your objective is to not let the hitters hit the ball, it's going to be a long year," says Chicago pitching coach Jackie Brown. "Alex is a battler. When things got tough, he tried to get tough with his fastball. Now he's learned to get tough with his curveball, his changeup. He believes in his stuff. He believes in himself."
Alvarez is a hero in his native Venezuela, where, from 1981 to '86, he threw 12 no-hitters on various national teams before being signed by the Rangers. He was acquired by the White Sox in a multi-player deal in '89. When he returned to Venezuela after the '91 season—the year in which he threw a no-hitter against the Orioles late in the season—he warned his wife not to tell anyone his flight plans, for tear of being buried in an avalanche of fans and media at the airport. They found out anyway. He was mobbed.
Pitching had come easily to Alvarez in the minors. But when he made his major league debut, with Texas on July 24, 1989, the 19-year-old Alvarez faced only five batters and retired none. After that start he was quickly written off by some of the top people in the Ranger organization and was traded five days later. In 1991, after dominating opponents at Double A Birmingham, Alvarez was recalled by the White Sox and went 3-2 with a 3.51 ERA in 10 games, including the no-hitter.
East year was supposed to be his breakthrough season, but he pitched poorly (5-3, 5.20 ERA) while splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen. The 6'1" Alvarez also was overweight 240 pounds) and was seen by some observers as being lazy. "He has great ability," a former teammate aid in spring training this year, "but he has never worked at it."
That has changed. Alvarez arrived in camp this spring weighing 226. He threw strikes, and he improved his concentration on the mound. Through Sunday he was 4-0 with a 2.70 ERA. "I found out last season that to win in this game, you have to work hard," says Alvarez. "Last year I worked mediocre. Now I'm here early every day, ready to work. And I've gotten better."
If the E-Z Boys pitch this well the rest of the year, the White Sox could win the West—easy.
IMAGINE IF HE WAS FIT
Cincinnati leftfielder Kevin Mitchell is overweight, he's out of shape, and. he says, his left foot is broken—but, boy, can he hit. "Incredible," says teammate Randy Milligan. "I've never seen anyone like him. He doesn't even need to take batting practice. He can do nothing for four days, come back and get three knocks."
Through Sunday the Reds had won seven in a row, and Mitchell was hitting .400 with six home runs and 25 RBIs in only 95 at bats. He had missed 10 games this year with a recurring hamstring injury. "He's one of the most intelligent hitters I've ever seen." says Cincinnati reliever Rob Dibble. "He doesn't just hit homers."
Oh, but when he docs.... Last Thursday, in two consecutive at bats against the Padres, Mitchell hit home runs that traveled a total of 873 feet. Red manager Tony Perez said he had never seen a player hit home runs that far in back-to-back at bats. Mitchell's second missile landed in the third deck at Riverfront Stadium; it was the first ball to land there since Darryl Strawberry boomed one in 1988.
HEADED FOR A RELAPSE?
The cost-cutting measures taken by Padre ownership (SI, March 29, 1993) and San Diego's subsequent collapse on the field have upset third baseman Gary Sheffield to the point that his play has been affected. "I've tried to be positive, but you can only take so much," says Sheffield, who homered in a 9-4 loss to the Giants on Sunday that dropped San Diego to 14-22 for the year. "Mentally I haven't been where I should be."
He hasn't been close. After making a run at the Triple Crown last year, Sheffield is slumping at the plate (his average had dropped from .318 to .262 in his last 11 games through Sunday), he's pouting, he's not running out ground balls, and he's making mental mistakes; in short, he's being the petulant player who infuriated many of his Brewer teammates when he played for Milwaukee from 1988 through '91. Sheffield missed consecutive games last week because of a nagging back injury, but there were Padres who wondered how hurt he really was.
Sheffield seemingly shed his bad attitude after his trade to San Diego in March 1992. Last season, when the Padres were good and Sheffield was great, he was a model citizen. But recently he complained about being dropped from third to fourth in the lineup for four games in early May. Since when is hitting cleanup a demotion? Besides, it was Sheffield who this spring offered to hit fourth occasionally.
Part of Sheffield's frustration has to do with his contract. It bothered him that San Diego did not offer him a multiyear deal coming oil last season. Sheffield, who will be a free agent after next season, already is hinting that he will look elsewhere rather than be tied to a team that doesn't appear to be committed to winning.
WIN NONE, LOSE SOME
By giving up a 12th-inning run to the Expos on Sunday, Met pitcher Anthony Young sustained his 18th straight loss, dating to April 19 last year—one defeat shy of the club record over two seasons and five short of the major league mark, set by Cliff Curtis of the Boston Braves in 1910-11. Eleven of Young's consecutive losses have come since he became a reliever last June. In those defeats he gave up 18 earned runs in 13 innings for a 12.46 ERA. During that same time, in the games in which he pitched and was not charged with a defeat. Young allowed three runs in 45‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, for a 0.60 ERA.
Having allowed 10 or more runs in a game seven times this year, the Blue Jays are looking for pitching help. (Last year they didn't give up 10 in a game until June 3.) Toronto is expected to monitor the progress of the Padres' Bruce Hurst, who is coming off shoulder surgery and is on a rehab assignment with Triple A Las Vegas. When Hurst, who's in the second year of a two-year, $6.4 million contract, is healthy enough to pitch, San Diego is expected to deal him....
The thin air in Denver not only helps batted balls travel farther, it also reduces the rotation on pitches, making it harder to throw a good curveball there. But this is not the main reason that at week's end Rocky pitchers had a 7.86 ERA, the worst in the majors. Blame that on expansion team ineptitude.