Baseball

September 26, 1993

MYSTERY MEN

The Rangers acquired outfielder Chris James from the Astros last Friday, and the next day he became the eighth player to start in rightfield for Texas this season as well as the eighth player to bat leadoff. So, naturally, James hit a home run on the second pitch of the game from the Angels' Mark Langston and later belted another homer as Texas won 9-2 to pull within 3½ games of the White Sox in the American League West.

That's the way it has gone this year for the Rangers: Find a spare part, plug him in and watch him produce. It's in direct contrast to the Texas teams of recent years, which had a nucleus of good players and no support group. But these strange guys from strange places are the biggest reason the Rangers are playing important games in September for the first time in their tumultuous, pennantless 22 years in Arlington. "We've got guys from Triple A, we've got guys who shouldn't even be here," says journeyman shortstop Mario Diaz, "but we've got guys who love to play."

It was remarkable that the Rangers were even in the race, considering they have used the disabled list 26 times this year, put their Opening Day lineup on the held only 11 times and started six different players at shortstop and the same number in centerfield.

Texas has played more than half the season without rightfielder Jose Canseco (elbow surgery), gotten no wins during the second half from pitcher Charlie Leibrandt (shoulder injury), gone 5-7 in games started by Nolan Ryan, suffered through an off year from ace Kevin Brown and played a daily game of roulette with the middle-infield positions.

Rookie manager Kevin Kennedy, 39, deserves a great deal of credit for not panicking in the course of having to make so many personnel moves. A former catcher who played eight years in the minor leagues without ever making it to the majors, Kennedy can relate to the bit player who battles his way to the big leagues.

He hasn't been afraid to use utilityman Doug Strange, 29, who began 1993 with more errors (26) than RBIs (20) in parts of three major league seasons. Strange played second base most of the year, in place of injured Bill Ripken, and at week's end was hitting .259 with 53 RBIs. In June the Rangers had been through five shortstops before recalling Diaz, 31, who is in his 15th professional season and has played for 12 pro teams. Through Sunday, Texas was 31-15 in games he had started at short.

It was Kennedy who put reliever Kenny Rogers into the starting rotation in spring training, though Rogers had a 6.17 ERA in 12 career starts. Now Rogers has supplanted Brown as the staff ace, winning 15 games to tie a club record for lefthanders. New pitching coach Claude Osteen advised Rogers to keep it simple and throw his fastball more. Kennedy and Osteen also put faith in righthander Roger Pavlik, whose first stint in the majors lasted for only three appearances in May 1992. Pavlik, who was still in the minors when the season started, has been an effective replacement for the oft-injured Ryan; at week's end he was 10-6 with a 3.88 ERA.

Kennedy also leaned on his veterans to police the clubhouse. Classy outfielder Gary Redus blasted precocious catcher Ivan Rodriguez earlier this year for not approaching the game with the proper intensity—a lecture that was not lost on the rest of the Rangers. Closer Tom Henke, who played for the world-champion Blue Jays last season, not only has given Texas the best relief pitching in its history (37 saves through Sunday, one short of the team record) but also has added a winning presence.

DON'T BLAME IT ON RIJO

Entering this season, only five major league teams had ever won 90 games one season and lost 90 the next. This year four teams might do it: the A's, the Brewers, the Reds and the Twins. Cincinnati's collapse has righthander Jose Rijo so discouraged that he says he's considering retiring or becoming a free agent by not signing the four-year, $22.5 million contract he verbally agreed to in March.

Rijo has the best stuff in the National League, but he had only 13 wins through Sunday because the bullpen had blown five chances to secure wins for him in the ninth inning. Rijo said he cried when he got back to his hotel after a 7-6 loss to Atlanta last week, a game in which he had a 3-2 lead when he was removed after six innings. Before deciding on his future, Rijo wants to see what the Reds will do in the off-season to improve.

SECOND TO NONE

For the second straight season Indian second baseman Carlos Baerga has been one of the American League's most productive players. At week's end he was hitting .320 with 20 homers and 111 RBIs, and will very likely join Rogers Hornsby as the only second basemen in history to hit .300 with 20 homers and 100 RBIs in more than one season. Hornsby did that five times.

Baerga also has a shot to win the positional triple crown, a concept introduced last season by the Elias Sports Bureau. Should Baerga lead major league second basemen in hitting, homers and RBIs, he would be the first American League second baseman to do so since Bobby Doerr of the 1944 Red Sox. Through Sunday five major league second baseman were batting around .300—there haven't been five .300 hitters at second in a season since divisional play began in '69—led by the Giants' Robby Thompson and the Blue Jays' Roberto Alomar, each hitting .321.

SHORT HOPS

How far have the Mets fallen? After finishing 54 games over .500 in 1986, they have a chance to finish 50 games under .500 this year. If they do so, they would go from 50 over to 50 under in the shortest time in National League history....

The Dodgers, who plan to cut their payroll before next season, don't expect to be active in the free-agent market this winter. After signing Darryl Strawberry, who will have missed more games because of injury than he has played in three seasons with L.A., can you blame them? ...Closer Lee Smith had 43 saves when the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees on Aug. 31. He is the only pitcher (since saves became an official statistic in 1969) to be dealt during a season in which he already had 30 or more saves. Now Smith hopes to achieve another first: pitch in a World Series. Only Lindy McDaniel (987 games), Gene Garber (931) and Phil Niekro (864) worked in more games than Smith had through Sunday (847) without pitching in a World Series....

Bugs have been swarming around Dodger Stadium at various times this season. "One night, I wore Shell No-Pest Strips for earrings," says Pirate coach Rich Donnelly....

When Mariner lefthander Randy Johnson struck out 15 Royals last Thursday, it was the fifth time this year he had struck out 14 or more batters in a game. The rest of the pitchers in the majors this season had a total of three 14-strikeout games through Sunday....

Of all possible outcomes after a batter steps to the plate, the rarest is a strikeout in which the hitter reaches on a throwing error by the catcher. From 1987 through '92 that play occurred only 17 times in the major leagues. But on Sept. 13, Royal catcher Mike Macfarlane was charged with throwing errors twice in that situation....

Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda deservedly took some heat for listing pitcher Orel Hershiser as L.A.'s starting third baseman on Sept. 15 and then pinch-hitting for him in the top of the first so Dave Hansen could get another shot at breaking the club record for pinch hits in one season (Hansen flied out)....

The mother of Tiger pitcher David Wells used to date a member of the Hell's Angels. "They were good guys, nice people," Wells says. "When I was growing up, they'd give me money for every strikeout and win. I took a lot of coin from the Hell's Angels."

PHOTO PHOTOOTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT USAStrange players like Strange, who had second base covered, have sparked the Rangers.

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)