Inside Baseball

August 15, 1999

STRONG ARMED
Underappreciated starters have kept the injury-plagued Astros on
top

Even by Major League standards, Astros righthander Shane
Reynolds is considered obsessive. For him, no step is without
purpose, no movement without meaning. "Yeah, he's got a few
quirks--maybe about 370," says fellow Houston pitcher Mike
Hampton, who with Reynolds makes up two thirds of the trinity of
Astros starters who have kept their injury-riddled club at the
top of the National League Central. "Like the way he walks out
to the mound, the way he fills his water cup, the way he paces
behind the mound. The umpire can't throw the ball to him; it has
to be on the ground when he picks it up. One time he kicked the
bench by accident and then threw a great game; now he has to tap
the bench with his foot before he goes out to the mound."

Reynolds (14-7, 3.51 ERA at week's end), Hampton (16-3, 2.96
after beating the Cubs on Sunday night) and the more flamboyant
and celebrated Jose Lima (15-6, 3.41) had made Houston, along
with the Yankees and Pirates, one of only three teams in the
majors with three 10-win pitchers. With that trio leading the
way, the Astros' starters had a 3.79 ERA, best among big league
rotations.

Given that all three pitchers figure to make 10 more starts,
Houston, which hasn't had a 20-game winner since Mike Scott in
1989, has an outside shot at being the first team with three
since the 1973 Athletics and the first in the National League
since Cincinnati in '23.

Success is hardly anything new for Reynolds, who went 19-8 with
a 3.51 ERA last season and has been one of the National League's
most consistent and underrated starters over the past four
years. When he finally finishes his "routine" and gets around to
throwing the ball, he has an effective split-fingered fastball,
sinker and two-seam fastball, making up for what he lacks in
velocity with impeccable control. Through Sunday he had walked
only 20 batters in 164 1/3 innings this year. "Shane is like a
surgeon," says Astros manager Larry Dierker. "His pitches have a
little bit of movement, and he just cuts you up around the
corners."

Hampton, on the other hand, has blossomed this year, having
already surpassed the career-high 15 wins he had in 1997.
Houston's only lefthanded starter, Hampton, 26, led the league
in wins and was third in ERA (2.96), mainly because he has
learned to relax and harness an above-average four-pitch
repertoire: a fastball in the low 90s, a slider, a curve and a
sinker, which he throws between 84 and 91 mph.

When Hampton is on, opposing hitters can do little but beat that
sinker into the dirt, as they did on July 18 when he shut out
the Indians on four hits and got 15 outs on ground balls. "My
concentration is better, but the biggest thing for me is not to
get in a mode where I'm throwing harder, harder, harder," he
says. "In the past that's always what I've done. Now I realize
it's better sometimes to take something off."

Though Hampton may sometimes pitch like the softer-tossing
Reynolds or Lima, whose signature delivery is a changeup, that's
where the pitchers' similarities end. "We're completely
different people," says Reynolds, whose daily regimen includes
1,000 sit-ups and a diet carefully tailored to maximize his
energy output. "Jose dances around, does his thing. I'm quiet
and keep to myself. Then there's Hampy, who's the prankster wise
guy." Who else would have tackled a mascot known as Henry the
Puffy Taco, as Hampton did, just for laughs, during an April
exhibition game against the Tigers?

If the Astros hold off the Reds, who trailed Houston by three
games as of Sunday, Dierker will truck out a three-man rotation
in October to equal the Braves' or any other in the National
League, a huge asset for Houston, which nearly had its year
destroyed by early injuries to offensive stars Moises Alou and
Ken Caminiti. "This team was built on offense," says first
baseman Jeff Bagwell. "If you had told me that we'd be in first
place despite all the injuries and that our pitching would get
us there, I would've said no way." Now, he adds, "with these
guys throwing, three out of five days we've won before we even
go out there."

Batista Keeps Jays Aloft
REPLACEMENT IN GOOD STANDING

General managers lost sleep trying to swing deals before the
July 31 trading deadline, but the most important trade in the
American League wild-card race was made two months ago. On June
12 the Blue Jays--having lost 11 of 14 to fall to 27-36 and 10
games behind the East-leading Yankees--sent reliever Dan Plesac
to the Diamondbacks for righthander John Frascatore and
shortstop Tony Batista. Toronto, which had just placed shortstop
Alex Gonzalez on the disabled list with a right shoulder injury,
grabbed Batista, 25, to shore up its infield until Gonzalez
returned.

Four days after the trade for Batista, who had batted .257 in 44
games with Arizona, the Blue Jays learned that Gonzalez needed
surgery and was lost for the year. Even if he'd gotten off the
DL, chances are he would have had a hard time getting his job
back. Toronto reeled off seven wins in Batista's first eight
games at short, during which he hit .323 with three homers.
Since the trade the Blue Jays had gone 35-15 through Sunday and
vaulted into a tie with the Red Sox for the lead in the
wild-card race. "It would have been disastrous to have Alex
Gonzalez go out for the year and not have a replacement," says
manager Jim Fregosi. "Tony has been very uplifting."

With five errors in 49 games, Batista has filled the hole at
short as expected. To everyone's surprise, he's also continued
the power surge he showed in his first week as a Blue Jay.
Batista, a career .263 hitter who had a season-best 18 home runs
in 106 games with the Diamondbacks last year, had hit .274 and
blasted 15 homers with Toronto.

That he gets the bat on the ball at all is amazing, given his
bizarre stance, with both feet on the back line of the batter's
box, his chest facing the pitcher and the bat held in front of
his face. As the pitcher delivers, the righthanded Batista turns
and strides into the pitch. "I just wanted to open up a little
bit and see the pitcher better," explains Batista, a native of
the Dominican Republic who signed with the A's as a 17-year-old
free agent in 1991 and was taken by the Diamondbacks in the '97
expansion draft. He says he invented the stance a couple of
winters ago, during the Caribbean Series, after enduring a
five-game hitless streak. When he laced a hit in his first at
bat, the stance became permanent.

So might his tenure as Toronto's shortstop.

Rockies' Road Continues
FINGER-POINTING IN COLORADO

Just hours after the Rockies fired manager Don Baylor last
September, rightfielder Larry Walker sounded skeptical about a
new skipper's ability to overcome Colorado's shortcomings. "Who
says we won't have the same country-club effect in our locker
room?" the Rocky Mountain News quoted Walker as saying. "It's
not really a club that wants to win half the time."

Now it appears that Walker's read on the situation was accurate.
In Jim Leyland's first season as manager, the Rockies--with
essentially the same roster that went 77-85 last year--was 48-63
through Sunday and mired in last place in the National League
West, 14 1/2 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks. "That
team isn't fundamentally sound," said outfielder Darryl
Hamilton, who, after Colorado traded him to the Mets on July 31,
ripped into his former team. "A lot of guys go out there and
say, 'I've got to get two or three hits, or a home run,' and
forget about the big picture."

That picture is far from rosy. Rumors have flown all season that
the job of Bob Gebhard, the Rockies' general manager since their
inception in 1991, is in jeopardy, and that vice president of
player personnel Gary Hughes, hired away from the Marlins last
off-season, is waiting in the wings to take over. "We'll
evaluate our people at the end of the season," says owner Jerry
McMorris in a less-than-ringing endorsement of Gebhard. "We're
obviously not as close to contending as we thought we were."

Getting closer won't be easy. McMorris says he's willing to
spend, but with a $62 million payroll, the 11th-highest in the
majors, and such high-priced players as Walker, righthander
Darryl Kile, outfielder Dante Bichette and infielders Vinny
Castilla and Mike Lansing all signed through at least 2000,
there won't be many open roster spots this off-season. There
isn't much help on the farm, either, with only three big league
prospects--catcher Ben Petrick and outfielders Derrick Gibson
and Edgard Clemente, all in Triple A--in the Colorado system.

"I'm not happy with the way the team is going," says a
frustrated McMorris, "and there's plenty of blame to go around."

Cape Crusaders
SUMMERTIME PROVING GROUND

The two college baseball players arrived on Cape Cod about two
months ago with divergent resumes and divergent goals. Lance
Niekro was better known as the son of former major league
pitcher Joe Niekro than as a freshman infielder from Division II
Florida Southern. Marshall McDougall was a Florida State
All-America, a second baseman who in May hit six home runs in a
single game.

This week, as the two pack up and head home, a lesson was
reinforced: College games are a nice place for major league
scouts to survey young talent, but a summer swinging wood bats
in the Cape Cod Baseball League can reveal a lot more about a
prospect. Niekro, who was a last-minute addition to the Orleans
Cardinals, catapulted from obscurity to a possible spot in the
first round of next June's amateur draft by tearing up the Cape
Cod League, leading it in home runs (13) and RBIs (44) while
finishing second in hitting (.360). "Those kind of numbers offer
instant credibility, even if you've never seen Niekro play,"
says Paul Ricciarini, scouting coordinator for the Astros. "A
strong showing in the Cape can make a player."

Or break one. Although McDougall put up big numbers for the
Seminoles (.419, 28 homers, 106 RBIs), many scouts suspected
that his production was greatly enhanced by the use of aluminum
bats. The Red Sox drafted McDougall in the 26th round in June
and then insisted, against his wishes, that he play on the Cape
and demonstrate his prowess swinging wood before talking
contract. McDougall's numbers for the Harwich Mariners: .248, 12
RBIs and a lone home run in 27 games.

"I guess this is why they drafted me in the 26th round," a
frustrated McDougall said last Thursday. "There's an adjustment
from aluminum to wood, but I think this was more me trying too
hard."

Says one big league scout, "The kid's not a prospect." McDougall
will likely return to Florida State for his senior year.

Before joining Orleans, Niekro, a 13th-round draft pick by the
Phillies from George Jenkins High in Lakeland, Fla., two years
ago, had planned to spend this summer in the Midwest's
little-known Northwoods League. When he got the chance to play
on the Cape, however, he jumped at it.

He immediately dazzled scouts with a graceful, compact swing, a
good eye and power to all fields. Oddly, his 13 home runs in 44
games were five more than he hit in 50 college games with an
aluminum bat. "Nobody saw this coming," said Orleans manager Don
Norris, a coach at Georgia College & State University. "I didn't
even know who Lance Niekro was. But suddenly he's the best
player in the league--a league full of big-time college stars."

From Marlon Anderson to Scott Williamson, more than 100 present
major leaguers spent time on the Cape, but the league hypes
itself as the booster of the little guy. Last year Bobby Kielty,
an undrafted outfielder out of Mississippi, so impressed scouts
during his time with the Whitecaps that he recently signed a
free-agent contract with the Twins that included a $500,000
bonus. "And that guy," says one scout, "was no Niekro."

Raines Battles Lupus
CAN ROCK KEEP ROLLING?

The news last week that Athletics outfielder Tim Raines is
suffering from lupus, a treatable but incurable connective
tissue disease, had teammates and other players around the
majors expressing concern and rooting hard for the player known
as Rock. Yet despite Raines's promise that he will return next
season, the reality is harsh: The career of one of the game's
most explosive players could be over.

Raines, who will remain in the Bay Area for about a month before
going home to Heathrow, Fla., where he will continue undergoing
treatment, says he wants to stick around the majors long enough
to play with his son, Tim Raines Jr., a 19-year-old with the
Orioles' Class A Delmarva (Md.) club. Yet, at 39, Raines was
already fading before the lupus was diagnosed. In just 58 games
this season, he hit .215 with four stolen bases.

Throughout his 20-year career, Raines has had the misfortune of
playing at the same time as baseball's greatest leadoff hitter,
Rickey Henderson. That, coupled with the fact that Raines's most
productive seasons were spent in Montreal, has obscured his not
inconsiderable accomplishments (.295, 2,561 hits, 1,548 runs,
1,290 walks and 807 stolen bases).

Here's hoping that next year Raines will be able to add to those
numbers.

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

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Lima has gotten the press, but Hampton (left) and Reynolds were 30-10 through Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS/TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS

the HOT corner

Tigers manager Larry Parrish says he's considering giving rookie
righthander Jeff Weaver a month off to rest his arm and regain
his early-season form. Weaver, who began the year 6-3 with a
2.89 ERA but had gone 0-5 with a 10.69 ERA in his last seven
starts through Sunday, insists he's O.K. "It's not because I've
got over 100 innings," he says. "It's because I'm thinking about
too much. I'm thinking about how many games under .500 we are;
how tough it is for us to get a win right now." ...

How bad is the Rockies' bullpen? Says righthanded reliever Mike
DeJean (6.84 ERA), "No one interviews me unless I get my brains
beat in. That means I get interviewed, what, 45 times this
year?" ...

The preopening surmise that Safeco Field, the Mariners' new
park, would be a pitcher's park is being borne out. In 18 games
there, Seattle starters had a 4.31 ERA, down from 6.28 for their
39 outings at the Kingdome. Says Mariners pitching coach Stan
Williams, "Guys are finding the ball doesn't jump out of here as
easily, and the infield isn't as fast." ...

Newly acquired Blue Jays outfielder Brian McRae's sprained left
knee is the main reason for his decline in stolen bases. McRae,
who averaged 25 steals over the past six seasons, was 2 for 8
this year....

The Dodgers' catcher of the future, 24-year-old Angel Pena, was
sent back to Triple A Albuquerque on Aug. 1. Besides hitting
.208 in 120 at bats, he was 15 pounds overweight at 250. "What a
shame," said one scout. "That kid is eating his way out of the
game."

The Standings

Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs reached the 3,000-hit mark last week,
and it can hardly be said that they limped across the line.
Still, through Sunday, Gwynn was hitting .319, or .019 lower
than his lifetime average, while Boggs, at .299, was .029 below
his career mark. By contrast, here are the 10 players who in the
seasons they joined the 3,000 club were either above or very
near their career batting averages.

PLAYER, YEAR SEASON AVG. LIFETIME AVG. DIFF.

1. Tris Speaker, 1925 .389 .345 +.044
2. Eddie Murray, 1995 .323 .287 +.036
3. Paul Molitor, 1996 .341 .306 +.035
4. Ty Cobb, 1921 .389 .366 +.023
5. Eddie Collins, 1925 .346 .333 +.013
6. Lou Brock, 1979 .304 .293 +.011
7. Stan Musial, 1958 .337 .331 +.006
8. Pete Rose, 1978 .302 .303 -.001
9. Roberto Clemente, 1972 .312 .317 -.005
10. Hank Aaron, 1970 .298 .305 -.007

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)