Inside Baseball

July 11, 1999

A RUN FOR THE MONEY
A 14-game win streak puts the downtrodden Padres right back in
the pennant race

Standing sentry in the lobby of the Padres' team hotel in Denver
last weekend was a sign that read PLEASE RESPECT OUR GUESTS'
WISHES. NO REQUESTS FOR AUTOGRAPHS. It was a polite touch, but
the sign was probably superfluous: Few people would have
recognized the San Diego players even if they had strolled
through the lobby in uniform, clacking their spikes and
dribbling tobacco juice on the tile floor. The lineup that
manager Bruce Bochy trotted out for the first game of a
four-game series against the Rockies last Friday included three
players who started the year with less than a season's worth of
major league games under their belt; only two players with
All-Star Game appearances (one each); and just one player ranked
among the National League top 10 in any offensive category,
shortstop Damian Jackson, who was seventh in the National League
with 20 stolen bases.

"There's some talent on this team," says rightfielder Tony
Gwynn, whose march to 3,000 hits stalled at 2,982 on June 24
when he was placed on the disabled list for the second time this
season (strained left calf). "It's just not talent your average
fan knows about."

Three weeks ago it would have been easy to dismiss that
statement as blind optimism from someone who has spent 18 years
with the club. There's nothing like a huge winning streak,
however, to bolster a man's credibility. On June 18, San Diego
was 25-38 and mired in last place, 13 1/2 games behind the then
National League West-leading Diamondbacks. Thanks to a
franchise-record 14 straight wins--a run that ended when the
Rockies swept them in a doubleheader last Saturday--the
defending National League champion Padres were at .500 at week's
end, just five games behind the first-place Giants and
threatening to join a pennant race they were never supposed to
be in.

"I wish I could pinpoint one thing, but it's not one guy or one
aspect," says outfielder Reggie Sanders, when asked to explain
the resurgence.

"Some things are unexplainable" is righthanded closer Trevor
Hoffman's take. There's a mystical quality to the sudden
awakening of a team that had been somnolent since Opening Day
and that, despite its recent tear, still ranked next-to-last in
the league in hitting (.260 through Sunday) and 13th in scoring
(4.53 runs per game).

San Diego's run, fueled by solid pitching and defense and an
aggressive and speedy offense, has made for a wildly uneven
season. Before the streak the pitching staff had a 4.29 ERA;
during the 14-0 run it had a sparkling 2.58 mark and held
opponents to a .217 average. In their first 64 games the Padres
batted .246 and scored 3.8 runs per game; while on the tear they
hit .302 and averaged 7.1 runs.

If the improbable streak--the longest in the National League
since the Giants won 14 straight in 1965--reminded frenzied
crowds at Qualcomm Stadium of the Padres' highly successful 1998
season, the players sparking it certainly did not. In an
off-season payroll cutback that came after San Diego voters
approved funding for a new ballpark, general manager Kevin
Towers traded slugger Greg Vaughn and his 50 home runs to the
Reds for Sanders and Jackson, and watched helplessly as three
key players--ace righthander Kevin Brown, third baseman Ken
Caminiti and centerfielder Steve Finley--went the free-agent
route to the Dodgers, Astros and Diamondbacks, respectively. The
defections appeared to leave the team with about as much chance
of making a playoff push as spring invitee Garth Brooks had of
developing into a 30-30 man. "I have to admit," says third base
coach Tim Flannery, "there were times coming out of spring
training that I'd look at this ball club and say, 'Jeez, this is
going to be a long year.'"

The roster was gutted further by a rash of injuries. Catcher
Carlos Hernandez tore his left Achilles tendon during the last
week of spring training. Third baseman George Arias missed a
month with a sprained right thumb. Catcher Jim Leyritz broke his
left hand on June 23. Shortstop Chris Gomez drifted in and out
of the lineup with a strained knee and went on the DL last
month. First baseman Wally Joyner missed six weeks with a chip
fracture in his left shoulder. Sanders (strained rib cage
muscle) and the newly anointed staff ace, righthander Andy Ashby
(lower back strain), each spent two weeks on the disabled list.
Most prominently, Gwynn's injury had caused him to miss 34 games
through Sunday. The scourge left Bochy with a lineup of Triple A
call-ups and other unknown quantities who had no experience
playing every day. "We had to have early workouts to work on
bunt plays and fundamentals, like they do in the minors," says
Flannery, "because a lot of the guys we had weren't with us in
spring training."

In Jackson, Sanders, second baseman-leadoff hitter Quilvio Veras
and outfielders Eric Owens and Ruben Rivera, the one offensive
asset Bochy's team clearly possessed was speed on the base
paths--a weapon he lacked with last year's power-hitting
club--and from the start he encouraged his charges to run, run,
run. "If these guys feel they can steal a base, I want them to
take it," he says. The initial result: overaggressiveness, which
led to mistakes and torpedoed the team's already-struggling
offense. Says Flannery, "We actually had to hold these guys back
a little bit because we were running like crazy."

Under the tutelage of first base coach Davey Lopes (who stole
557 bases in a 16-year big league career), the young horses
became more effective. In an 8-7 victory over Colorado at
Qualcomm on June 28, the 10th win of the streak, the Padres
swiped a franchise-record nine bases, including five by Jackson.
Their boldness on the base paths also helped force four Rockies
errors. During their 14-0 run the Padres stole 25 bases in 32
attempts, a 78% success rate, and through Sunday they were
fourth in the league with 82 steals.

Team speed aside, San Diego's turnaround might best be
attributed to a couple of tongue-lashings administered by Bochy
and Hoffman. After a 6-2 loss to Cincinnati on May 23 that
closed a lackluster 2-4 home stand, Bochy had a team meeting and
let loose with a rare tirade, calling the team's play "pathetic"
and "embarrassing." Says Gwynn, "It would have been easy for him
to say, 'We're a young team, there's no reason to rant and
rave.' But he waited and waited, and when the time was right, he
came in here and let us have it."

"I had some things I wanted to get off my chest, about
preparation and staying focused every day for nine innings,"
says Bochy. "We were having too many mental lapses and making
mistakes a major league team shouldn't make."

Three weeks later, with the offense still sputtering, Hoffman
called a players-only meeting. "We needed to remind people that
there are certain things you earn only by playing well," says the
closer, who, after blowing three of his first 12 save
opportunities, had nailed 11 in a row, including eight during the
14-game streak. "We were acting like we were 20 games up, and we
weren't."

Soon after that, the Padres took off. Jackson, who was hitting
.233, hit .317 over the next 17 games. Rivera, the 25-year-old
outfielder whose five-tool talent may finally be blossoming, hit
six homers and through Sunday had a career-high 14. He also
played flawless defense and made a game-saving, ninth inning
catch to rob Eric Karros of a homer in a 4-3 win over the Dodgers
on June 29. Owens, a former football player at Ferrum (Va.)
College, whom Gwynn calls "the poster boy for this turnaround,"
had a 17-game hitting streak after going 3 for 5 in Sunday's 11-0
win over the Rockies.

It's also no coincidence that San Diego's run started when
Sanders returned from the DL on June 18. Since then he had hit
.403 with five homers and 15 RBIs through Sunday and provided
punch to a mostly powerless lineup. "Reggie Sanders ignites
them," says Colorado manager Jim Leyland. "You used to be able to
throw a ball by him once in a while, but you can't do that
anymore. His swing is so much better and shorter."

Sanders will soon get more support. Gwynn should come off the DL
this week, and Leyritz should be back soon as well. Still, to
make a charge at a postseason berth, the club must prove that
its winning streak was no fluke. The day after the Padres
completed their sweep of the Dodgers last week, Gwynn said, "I
sat in the training room shaking my head because there's not a
guy out there who believes this is going on. We thought we'd be
competitive, but nobody expected this. Nobody."

Chuck Knoblauch's Woes
THROWING THE BALL WITH E'S

Steve Sax's most vivid memory of hell dates back 16 years to a
June evening in San Diego. He had been the Dodgers' star of the
future--a speedy second baseman who could hit for average and
steal bases. But virtually overnight he went from
All-Star-in-waiting to psychological train wreck. Sax would
field a grounder effortlessly, then launch the ball over first
baseman Steve Garvey's head. Or skip it past Garvey's mitt.
Finally, after an errant toss against the Padres flew a couple
of feet out of Garvey's reach, Sax had reached his nadir. At
inning's end he jogged into the Dodgers' dugout, slammed his
glove to the floor and buried his head in his hands. "That was
it--the final straw," Sax recalls. "At that moment I thought my
career was over."

Minutes later Sax experienced an epiphany. "I got mad," he says.
"I said, F--- it, I'm a major league second baseman, and I've
thrown the ball to first thousands of times. I did it then, I
can do it now." Sax, who went on to lead National League second
basemen in fielding percentage in '89, pauses. "That's what
Chuck Knoblauch needs to do. He just needs to say, 'F--- it.'"

In a scenario eerily similar to Sax's--highly touted player,
big-market club, crumbling self-confidence--Knoblauch, the
Yankees' leadoff hitter and '97 Gold Glove second baseman, is
living in his own personal hell. Through 79 games this season,
he has committed a team-high 15 errors, eight of which were
throwaways that--high, low or wide--eluded first baseman Tino
Martinez. Much like Sax, Knoblauch has turned the 4-3 into the
E-4. In an 8-2 loss to the Tigers last week, Knoblauch first
failed to complete a double play by rifling the ball into the
dirt, then pulled Martinez off the bag with a wide launch. "It's
very frustrating, as frustrating a thing as I've experienced,"
Knoblauch told SI last week. "But the worst thing I can do is
talk about it. I'm not much into talking about things. The more
you talk about a problem, the more it stays on your mind. I just
want it to go away."

Although Knoblauch's mind-boggling affliction has drawn much
media attention recently, this is not the first time his defense
has been lacking, according to a high-ranking Yankees official.
When New York general manager Brian Cashman traded four minor
leaguers and $3 million to get Knoblauch from the Twins in
February 1998, Cashman figured he was acquiring one of the
American League's best all-around second basemen. Early on,
however, Yankees coaches saw that seven years of playing on
artificial turf at the Metrodome had made Knoblauch a defensive
player with limited range and a tendency toward lapses in
concentration. "Grass is a different game," says Yankees third
base coach Willie Randolph, a former All-Star second baseman.
"Balls behave a lot differently."

Perhaps more important, Knoblauch seemed--and still
seems--overwhelmed by the scrutiny that comes with playing in
New York. Unlike many of his teammates, he has not been at ease
in the spotlight, especially of late, in the midst of a divorce
and the struggle that his father, Ray, is enduring with
Alzheimer's disease. "You could see Chuck shy away from [the
attention] early on," says the Yankees official. "He was never
comfortable here. That's affected the way he's played. From Day
One he hasn't been the guy he was in Minnesota. He's a little
too cautious. Sometimes he plays timid." According to manager
Joe Torre, nothing is physically wrong with Knoblauch. During
infield practice his throws are perfect. His form, for the most
part, is fine. Not so after the game starts.

"You go through hitting slumps, you go through defensive
slumps," Knoblauch says. "That's all this is." Maybe. But while
Torre has repeatedly stood by his man, the team's top prospect,
Double A shortstop Alfonso Soriano, was batting .298 for the
Norwich Navigators at week's end. With Derek Jeter likely to be
a fixture at short for years to come, Soriano could be converted
into a second baseman--one who throws straight.

"I believe Chuck will get through this, just like I did," says
Sax. "But, to be honest, you never know. There are guys like me,
then there are guys like Mark Wohlers who never get over the
misery. I hope Chuck is like me."

Hideo Nomo's Comeback
FAST, CHEAP, AND IN CONTROL

The first time he saw righthander Hideo Nomo throw in person
this year, Brewers manager Phil Garner wasn't blown away. Nomo's
split-fingered fastball was slow and flat. His curveball hung
like a pinata. "He wasn't impressive at all," recalls Garner.
"He really gave us no reason to sign him." So why did Milwaukee
give him a contract? "Well," says Garner, "he was an arm, and he
was cheap."

So much for scouting. In baseball's most serendipitous
first-half discovery, Nomo, the former Dodgers sensation who was
traded to the Mets last year and then released by New York and
by the Cubs earlier this season, has established himself as the
Brewers' ace, going 6-1 with a 4.28 ERA through Sunday. This
from a pitcher who seemed doomed to wind up back in Japan, with
DO NOT RETURN stamped on his forehead. "A lot of auditions take
place in bullpens, and bullpen pitching means nothing," says
Garner. "Hideo Nomo in a game is a hell of a lot different than
the Nomo I saw in the bullpen."

With the Mets in spring training, Nomo was throwing his
fastball, clocked in the mid-90s in his Dodgers heyday, no
better than 85; New York cut him loose. The Cubs signed him and
sent him to Triple A Iowa, where he went 1-1 with a 3.71 ERA in
three starts. At that point, however, Nomo refused to continue
pitching in the minors, as general manager Ed Lynch had
requested, and walked away from the Cubs' $1 million contract
offer. After Nomo flopped in a one-day tryout with the Indians,
the Brewers gave him an audition. Garner saw so-so stuff and a
tired arm, but recognized the risk as minimal. (The Mets bought
out Nomo's contract and the Brewers will pay him only $200,000
this season.) On May 9 against the Giants, after one minor
league outing for the Brewers, Nomo got his first start for
Milwaukee and allowed only one run in 6 1/3 innings. Although
his fastball wasn't the Nomo specialty of old, he was clocked at
89 mph, fast enough to complement a suddenly rejuvenated
curveball. Nomo lost his next start, a six-inning, two-run
decision to the Marlins, but he hasn't lost since.

"I'd like to take credit," says Brewers pitching coach Bill
Campbell. "But it's not as if we found a mistake and changed it.
We've done nothing. The only thing I can figure is that he's
gotten used to throwing a little less hard. There's a big
difference between 94 mph and 89, but not if you locate your
pitches. He's been doing that."

The Brewers are realistic. Nomo is 30 years old and has thrown a
lot of innings. (He threw 140 or more pitches in 61 of his
starts during his five-year Japanese League career.) He will
probably never again throw especially hard. That said, on a team
suffering from a 5.19 ERA (third worst in the league), he has
been the perfect balm. "I don't think anyone knows how much he
has in his arm," says Campbell. "I guess there's a chance it
won't last. But there's also a chance he's on his way back to
the old Hideo Nomo--but this time in Milwaukee."

Randy Johnson's Hard Luck
LITTLE SUPPORT FOR BIG UNIT

Has there ever been a pitcher who threw as well as the
Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson did in his last three starts and
lost all three games? Over that span Johnson pitched three
complete games, tied the major league three-game strikeout
record (43) set by the Mets' Dwight Gooden in 1984 and allowed
only four runs. He also received a combined three hits and no
runs in offensive support from a team that averages 5.6 runs a
game, second best in the National League.

Johnson's hard-luck stretch began on June 25, when Cardinals
rookie Jose Jimenez no-hit Arizona. In that game Johnson struck
out 14 and allowed five hits but lost 1-0. In the Big Unit's
next start, against the Reds, journeyman Ron Villone shut out
the Diamondbacks 2-0 on one hit; Johnson fanned 17 and gave up
seven hits. Then, on Monday, Jimenez again victimized Arizona,
throwing a two-hit shutout in a 1-0 win. Johnson permitted four
hits while racking up 12 K's.

Said the Big Unit, moments before storming away from the press
following Monday's defeat, "There's no satisfaction in getting
strikeouts. That's all I have to say."

Gary Gaetti's Decision
THE BIOLOGICAL CLOCK IS TICKING

Slumped in front of his locker in the Cubs' clubhouse, Gary
Gaetti looks as old as he seems to be feeling. His hair, once
thick and brown, is now thinning. Mini folds of flab spill from
his sides. Mostly, it is Gaetti's expression of late--the
resigned grimace of a man past his prime, of a man ready to call
it a career.

Although he has yet to make up his mind, Gaetti, 40, is
increasingly disenchanted with his role on the Cubs. The
two-time All-Star, who hit 19 home runs last year, is more and
more often stuck on the bench, watching the platoon of Manny
Alexander and Tyler Houston eat up much of the playing time at
third base. In 162 at bats, Gaetti is hitting .185 with six
homers and 24 RBIs. "There are a lot of things in baseball I
enjoy," he says. "But the struggles make it less enjoyable. I'm
used to being productive. When I'm not, it hurts. Retirement has
been crossing my mind. Maybe it's time to think about it."

Gaetti needs 43 home runs to reach 400 but says that milestone
is out of reach. His bat, admittedly, has slowed. Last Thursday,
in a 19-12 loss to Milwaukee, manager Jim Riggleman had Gaetti
warming up in the bullpen, and then used him two days later to
mop up the final inning of a 21-8 hammering by the Phillies. It
seems as if Riggleman has little other practical use for the vet
these days. "I told him, 'Just let me know what you decide,'"
Riggleman says. "It's a huge decision." Gaetti goes back and
forth--stick it out or hang 'em up. "What I'd really like is at
least one more hot streak," he says. "Just to enjoy it again."

As the clock ticks away, that seems more and more unlikely.

For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: JOEL ZWINK Jackson is among the fabulous fill-ins who have sparkled while subbing for injured Padres teammates. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON It's no coincidence that San Diego is 15-2 since Sanders came off the DL. COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Nomo has been a steal for the Brewers.

the HOT corner

The horrific ankle fracture suffered by the Pirates' Jason
Kendall on Sunday probably means that John Wathan's record for
stolen bases by a catcher (36 for the Royals in 1982) will stand
for at least another year. Kendall had 22 steals when he injured
his right ankle stepping on first base, and it appears he'll
miss the rest of the season....

Since going on the DL with a damaged tendon in his left hand on
May 12, Pirates shortstop Pat Meares has served as the color
commentator on a couple of the club's radio broadcasts, spent an
afternoon sunbathing in the upper deck in Philadelphia and,
recently participated in the between-innings Sausage Race at
Milwaukee's County Stadium. Masquerading as a bratwurst, he
defeated a hot dog, an Italian sausage and a kielbasa....

Five of the 11 members of the Giants' All-1980s team were unable
to attend a ceremony in their honor on June 27 at 3-Com Park.
Will Clark, Chili Davis and Matt Williams were playing for other
teams, Jose Uribe is afraid to fly and Kevin Mitchell could not
be found....

If Cardinals rightfielder Eric Davis is required to have surgery
on his damaged left shoulder, rookie pitcher Jose Jimenez should
serve as nurse. Davis believes the two diving catches he made to
save Jimenez's June 25 no-hitter "took [the pain] over the edge.
But I would do it all over." ...

After giving up six runs in one third of an inning against the
Brewers on June 19, Reds pitcher Ron Villone won his next three
starts, allowing only eight hits and two runs in 22 innings.

in the BOX

June 30, 1999
Rangers 18, Angels 4

By the ninth inning of the final game of the Rangers' three-game
stomping of the Angels at Edison Field last week, battered
Anaheim pitchers had had enough. They'd been hammered for 41
hits and outscored 30-5 to that point, in large part because the
Angels' hurlers failed to keep the hitters honest by throwing
inside.

Reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, called in to mop up with the
Angels trailing 16-4, reversed that trend and sent a message
that next time, the Rangers shouldn't get so comfy at bat. He
moved several Rangers off the plate and nailed centerfielder
Roberto Kelly in the back with a fastball. "I wanted to give
Texas a warning that we will be ready to play them the next
time," said Hasegawa. "They'll be thinking inside, and that's
good."

Added closer Troy Percival, "That should have been done five
innings earlier." Sounds as if hitters on both teams should wear
extra padding when the division rivals next meet, in Texas on
July 21.

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)