A Good Run of Salmon
The Angels' 25-year-old rightfielder, Tim Salmon, says he's not a "numbers guy" or a "baseball historian." That's too bad, because it means he can't fully appreciate what he accomplished last week. In successive games Salmon went 4 for 5, 4 for 5 and 5 for 5, joining Joe Cronin (1933) and Walt Dropo (1952) as the only American Leaguers to get 13 hits over three consecutive games.
Salmon's binge included seven singles, two doubles, a triple and three homers off nine pitchers, an outburst that raised his average from .272 to .336.
"It was weird," said Salmon, "I didn't feel any different at the plate than if I had gone 0 for 4—except I was on base more. It didn't feel like I'd expect it to feel. There are times I go up there thinking, I know I'm going hit this guy good—but I didn't feel that way."
Until last week Salmon, the 1993 American League Rookie of the Year, hadn't had a four-hit game as a major leaguer. On May 10 he singled, doubled and tripled against the Rangers in a game suspended by curfew after eight innings. When the game resumed the next night, he singled in the 10th for his fourth hit. In the regularly scheduled game that night, he hit a homer and three singles. In his next game, last Friday night in Seattle, Salmon had two homers, two singles and a double, with a career-high five RBIs.
"Every time one of my teammates would get near me, he'd make sizzling sounds, like I was too hot," he said. "They'd ask me, 'Can I touch your bats?' "
Last Saturday, Salmon took aim at the league record of 15 hits in four straight games (held by three players) and the post-1900 major league record of 16, set by Brooklyn's Milt Stock in 1925. Salmon walked in the first inning and homered in the second but went hitless in his final three at bats.
On Sunday he homered again.
The atrocious start by closer Mitch Williams has become a worry for the Astros, who at week's end had fallen live games behind the front-running Reds in the National League Central. Williams, acquired from the Phillies in the off-season, had pitched 14‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings and allowed 14 runs, 17 hits (including three homers) and 18 walks in going 1-3 with an 8.79 ERA through Sunday. He was throwing his fastball in the mid-80's, down from his usual low 90's.
There's apparently nothing wrong with Williams physically, but 29-year-old pitchers don't lose that much velocity overnight for no reason. It seems his struggles are at least partly psychological. Williams has always needed to be coddled, as he was with the Rangers at the start of his career and with the Phillies in his three most recent seasons. In Philadelphia, manager Jim Fregosi always gave Williams the ball late in a close game. However, Houston's first-year manager, Terry Collins, hasn't been so accommodating after poor outings by Williams—like the one on May 9, when Wild Thing blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning of a crushing 9-8 loss to the Dodgers. Collins has shifted to a closer-by-committee strategy, a move that appears to have confused Williams even more.
"He says I'm the closer, but his idea of a closer and my understanding of a closer may be different," Williams says. "When you're the main guy in the bullpen, even it you struggle, you're going to get the ball in the same situations. But with this setup, he doesn't use the bullpen like that. So I don't know when I'll get the ball again."
Williams has always been what his pitching coach with Texas, Tom House, called a "Mach 3 with hair on fire" kind of pitcher, meaning Williams must throw as hard as he can on every pitch—walks be damned—to be successful. With the uncertainty of his role in the Astro bullpen, Williams appears to be letting up on his pitches in order to throw more strikes. Consequently, when he does throw a pitch near the plate, it's often getting hit.
Until this year Wild Thing had rarely suffered from being hit hard; he usually sabotaged himself with walks. In his career, through Sunday, he had given up 509 hits and 510 walks in 668‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. No pitcher in history has finished his career with more walks than hits allowed in 250 or more innings.
The signing of free-agent designated hitter Julio Franco by the White Sox to a one-year, $1 million contract might wind up having been the savviest economic deal and the move with the strongest impact made last off-season. Through Sunday, Franco was hitting .297 with nine home runs and the majors' second-best RBI total, 38. (The Blue Jays' Joe Carter had 39.) What's more, in hitting cleanup, Franco has provided the best protection Frank Thomas has ever had.
Only 14 other players in major league history can match Franco's career numbers in the combined categories of batting average (.300), homers (109) and stolen bases (230), but he is something of an overlooked performer—primarily because he has never played in a postseason game. In fact, the Royals' Hubie Brooks and the Yankees' Don Mattingly are the only active players who have played more games without a postseason appearance. But with his hot start for the White Sox, who are favored to win the American League Central, Franco stands to be in the spotlight more often.
"There is a time for everything," says Franco, who spent most of his career on lousy teams in Cleveland and Texas. "Now is my time."
In his second major league game, Indian closer Paul Shuey, fresh from Class A ball, became the 10th pitcher (and the first rookie) in American League history to strike out four batters in an inning. Last Saturday against the Tigers, Shuey struck out Chad Kreuter and Chris Gomez and then walked Tony Phillips and Milt Cuyler. Next, Travis Fryman struck out on a wild pitch but reached base safely. Shuey then struck out Cecil Fielder—on his 36th pitch of the inning—to wrap up a 9-3 win for Cleveland. The last pitcher to strike out four in an inning was Matt Young of the Mariners, in 1990....
On May 11 Angel lefthander Mark Langston started against the Rangers—just 29 days after having bone chips removed from his left elbow. "Ten years ago," said California manager Buck Rodgers, "that might have been a career-ending injury." Said Ranger pitcher Bruce Hurst, "What did he do, have Dr. Spock zap the bone chips out of there? I had [shoulder] surgery 19 months ago, and I'm just getting back now."
...There are a few candidates for worst freeagent signing of the season, but none stronger than catcher Dave Valle, who left the Mariners last winter to sign a one-year deal with the Red Sox. An injury-prone player who can't be counted on from one night to the next, Valle was batting .167 with one home run and four RBIs at week's end. Not only has he lost his starting job, but he is also now Boston's third catcher, behind Rich Row land and Damon Berryhill....
Juiced Ball Note of the Week: Last Friday and Saturday, Cardinal shortstop Ozzie Smith hit homers in back-to-back games for the first time in his 17-year career. It marked only the fifth time that he had hit two home runs in the same month. For the switch-hitting Smith, the Saturday-night dinger was only the third of his career in 5,789 regular-season at bats from the left side.
Between the Lines
Never Say Never. On May 10 the Braves trailed the Phillies 8-1 entering the bottom of the ninth but scored seven runs to tie the game. Atlanta then won 9-8 in the 15th. It was the second time this season that a team had rallied from a seven-run deficit in the ninth to win. (The Angels did it against the Blue Jays on April 15.) According to the Elias Sports Bureau, such a comeback had occurred only two times in the previous 30 years. The Braves' winning run was driven in by pitcher Mike Stanton's bunt single. It was his second hit of the game, making him only the third reliever in the last three years to get two hits in a game. More important, the Braves had used all of their available position players and pitchers (excluding three starters), so if the game had gone on much longer, Atlanta had plans to insert pitcher John Smoltz in leftfield, move leftfielder Dave Gallagher to third and put third baseman Bill Pecota on the mound. "I was trying to find a way to get the game over with so I wouldn't have to pitch another inning," said Stanton, who worked four innings, "but I would have liked to have seen Pecota pitch."
Opportunity Knocked. The Pirates left 17 runners on base—one shy of the National League record for a nine-inning game—in a 6-4 loss to the Phillies last Thursday. "I had a lot of visitors," said Pittsburgh third base coach Rich Donnelly, "but no one went home. It was like a Monopoly game: No one would advance directly to Go. They were all stuck on some utility."