It's hard to recall the last time a team's fortunes went from so bad to so good in so short a time as those of the 1994 Twins. Through April 29, Minnesota had lost 16 of its 24 games, was last in the American League Central (6½ games out of first) and had allowed 10 or more runs in a game eight times. As bad as the numbers looked, the Twins themselves looked even worse on the field.
But, suddenly, through Sunday they had won 14 of their next 18 games, without giving up 10 runs in any of those games, and had climbed into a tie for second place, 2½ games behind the White Sox. What's more, Minnesota had taken seven of eight games from the three best teams in the powerful American League East—the Orioles, the Yankees and the Red Sox—in a home stand that ended Sunday with a 9-2 loss to Boston. "The spirit around here is certainly better than it was three weeks ago," said Minnesota closer Rick Aguilera, who, now that the Twins are a Central contender, has been taken off the trading block.
The resurgence was sparked by the return to action of outfielder Shane Mack, another player the Twins had tried to unload recently because he makes so much money ($3.25 million). Since coming off the disabled list (injured right shoulder) on May 3, Mack had hit .393 with three homers and 15 RBIs in 16 games. Also, during the big home stand, 42-year-old DH Dave Winfield homered three times and had a five-RBI game and a four-RBI game.
While the Minnesota pitching staff remains suspect (6.19 ERA through Sunday, second worst in the majors), vast improvement was made this month. Scott Erickson won consecutive starts for the first time since September 1992 (a span of 44 starts), and Pat Mahomes (4-1) won three times after having mastered his breaking pitch.
Given the Twins' curious season, it should come as no surprise that they beat the Red Sox 21-2 and 1-0 in two games played within 24 hours of each other last Friday and Saturday. In the lopsided win, Minnesota's Kirby Puckett had three hits and seven RBIs after five innings, and in the narrow one, Kevin Tapani and Aguilera combined for the shutout.
A Drop in the Crime Rate
Through Sunday, after seven weeks of the season, Rickey Henderson had three stolen bases, Tim Raines had three times as many home runs (six) as steals (two), and the Mets had only eight thefts in 18 tries. There has been an average of 1.38 stolen bases a game, a pace that if it holds up, would be the lowest since 1975, when there were 1.31 stolen bases a game.
Base thieves are as plentiful as ever, so why have steals been on the decline?
Most observers of the game note that with the ball flying out of the park at a record pace, managers are less inclined to risk having a runner thrown out trying to steal if the next guy up might hit a home run. Then, too, as Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller says, "Pitching has been extremely bad, and if a pitcher has nothing, you're not going to give him an out."
But pitching wasn't very good during the run-happy 1987 season either, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that year produced the most steals per game (1.70) since the live-ball era began in '20.
So, what gives? Angel second baseman Harold Reynolds, who had 246 career steals at week's end, says that while pitchers are struggling to get outs, they are much improved in one area—preventing stolen bases. Reynolds cites three reasons: 1) more pitchers are using the slide-step delivery, whereby a shortened stride to the plate is used to quicken delivery time; 2) pitchers throw to first base more often to keep the runner close; and 3) more pitchouts are being called.
"I'd never heard of the slide step before 1988. Now everyone has one," says Reynolds. "It's tough for a base runner to get a beat on a pitcher's rhythm. You have to wait in the count, and by that time the ball has been hit. Also, managers are more in control of the running game than ever, offensively and defensively, calling pitches and not giving the green light—I didn't get it once last year [when he played for the Orioles]—in which case, if you get caught stealing, you're in trouble."
Red Sox centerfielder Otis Nixon says, "The days of the 100-steal man are over. Sixty or 70 will lead the league." The National League's top base thief, the Expos' Marquis Grissom, stole 207 bases in the last three years but didn't get his first this season until April 19 (he had 12 through Sunday). He has been slowed by injuries and a hitting slump, as has Henderson of the A's, but no one has run wild so far in '94. The American and National League leaders were Kenny Lofton of the Indians (21 steals) and Deion Sanders of the Braves (17), respectively.
"Every manager tells his pitchers, if they can't hold runners on, they won't be here," says Miller. "When I came to the National League in '86, if a pitcher was slow to the plate, everyone ran."
Miller says he recently watched a tape of a game from six years ago and timed the pitchers' deliveries to home plate. He clocked a few as slow as 1.9 to 2.1 seconds. Nowadays, with the slide step, 1.5 is considered slow. "Every team in the league can throw someone at you with a 1.1 or a 1.2," he says. "If a guy's that quick, why run?"
Most first base coaches carry stopwatches during games to time the opposing pitcher's delivery. If it's more than 1.5 seconds, they tell the runner to go, but there aren't many 1.5's around anymore.
"I think the slide step is the reason that more homers are being hit," says the White Sox' Raines, who ranks fourth on the alltime stolen-base list. "Pitchers alter their delivery to use it. Plus they're throwing more fastballs."
White Sox catcher Mike LaValliere has his own explanation of why fewer bases are being swiped. "All the catchers got together in the off-season and worked a deal with the shoe companies," he says. "We had every player's spikes cut down slightly, so no one is quite as fast."
Red-hot Royal ace David Cone (8-1) has learned the value of efficiency, thanks to his pitching coach, Bruce Kison. After seven years of trying to overpower every hitter he faced—and running up prodigious pitch counts and walk and strikeout totals—Cone has learned to throw first-pitch strikes and to try to get hitters out early in the count. "It's a beautiful thing: one pitch, one out," says Cone, who on Sunday pitched his third straight shutout, a 4-0 one-hitter against the Angels.
With K.C.'s marvelous infield defense, Cone is content to allow the ball to be put in play so his fielders can do the work—a luxury he rarely enjoyed while he was with the error-prone Mets from 1987 to '92. The 100 pitches Cone threw in a 9-0 win over the Twins on May 11 was the lowest pitch count he had ever had for a complete game. It was also only the third complete game he had ever thrown without walking a batter.
"In New York the objective was to keep the ball out of play or in the air," Cone says. "I led the world in pitches thrown [including a career-high 166 in one start]. It was tough to reprogram me from that mind-set. Bruce has gradually reprogrammed me."
But throwing first-pitch strikes hasn't been the only reason for Cone's turnaround from an 11-14 record with the Royals last year. For one thing, Kansas City hitters have been more generous in their support of him, scoring 5.33 runs per Cone start, compared with 2.97 in 1993—worst in the American League. For another, he has been more aggressive even on 0-and-2 counts, choosing not to waste a pitch but to attack. He also now runs to the mound each inning and usually throws three warmup pitches before the first hitter even has his helmet on. "It's about setting the pace," he says.
The importance of the underrated job of middle reliever has rarely been more apparent than in the role played by the Astros' Tom Edens this season. In five of his 18 appearances through Sunday, Edens came in with the bases loaded, and he allowed only three of those 15 runners to score. A top closer who nowadays is used only in the ninth inning might go an entire season without coming into a situation like that. Just once we would like to see a manager call for his closer in the seventh inning, with the bases loaded and the game in the balance....
Last year Kevin Appier, Tim Belcher, Kevin Brown, Dave Fleming, Juan Guzman, Pete Harnisch, Jack McDowell and Terry Mulholland all won at least 12 games and had an ERA of less than 4.50. At week's end, what did they have in common? They each had an ERA of more than 6.00 this year....
Last Friday, Cardinal outfielder Brian Jordan got his first hit of the season with a runner in scoring position, breaking an 0-for-24 streak in that situation....
Juiced Ball Note of the Week: Last Friday, when the Twins beat the Red Sox 21-2 and the Mariners beat the Rangers 19-2, it marked the fifth and sixth times this year that a team had scored 19 or more runs in a game. That's as many as in the last two seasons combined.
Between the Lines
Bad Hair Night. It was Jay Buhner Haircut Night at the Kingdome last Thursday, and before the Mariners' game against the Rangers, 426 people lined up in front of 10 barber chairs to get a buzz cut just like the Seattle rightfielder's. "It was crazy," Buhner said. "Hair was flying everywhere. I should have collected some in case I need a weave someday." Among those who had their heads nearly shaved were a 60-year-old man and two women. Everyone who was sheared at the ballpark, plus 86 other fans who showed up with buzz cuts at the Kingdome, received a free seat in the rightfield bleachers. "Some of the ugliest-looking people I've ever seen," Buhner said when he looked up at his private cheering section. Before every inning Buhner tossed an outfield warmup ball into his cluster of fans. "It was the least I could do for anyone whose head looked like mine," he said.
Second Wind. In the nightcap of an International League doubleheader last Thursday, the Norfolk Tides beat the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons 14-10 by scoring 10 runs in the top of the seventh (and last) inning after there were two out and none on. (Triple A teams play two seven-inning games in a doubleheader.) Eleven straight Tide hitters reached base, making a winner of outfielder Jim Vatcher, who had pitched a scoreless bottom of the sixth. Vatcher went to the mound because the Norfolk staff was worn out from the first game of the twin bill, which the Tides lost 1-0 in 13 innings. It was the second time in a week that the Red Barons had lost to an outfielder; the Richmond Braves' Brian Kowitz pitched the last three innings of a 17-inning game on May 12 and was credited with the win. "I've never seen anything like it," Norfolk manager Bobby Valentine said of the Tides' comeback. Even though closer Mike Cook was tired, Valentine sent him in to pitch the bottom of the seventh. "After we scored 10," Valentine said, "I thought, If we screw around and not win this game, we'll never win another."
Team Effort. They've been playing baseball in the National League for 118 years, and until this season there had been only one game in which six pitchers had combined for a shutout. Then it happened twice in three days: Six Marlins blanked the Mets on May 15, and six Cardinals shut out the Pirates on May 17.