RELIEF AT LAST
Led by closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, the pen is no longer a Seattle
Kazuhiro Sasaki's entrance into a game at Safeco Field isn't a
mere call to the bullpen--it's an event. As the Mariners closer
trots to the mound, fans unfurl Japanese flags, the scoreboard
flashes the words DAI-MAJIN (the name of a mythical Japanese
character with godlike powers, and Sasaki's nickname back home
in Japan) and KAZUMANIA (what the team hopes to incite), and the
stadium video screen flashes close-up shots of cheering fans
wearing Samurai-style headbands. The party atmosphere is a far
cry from the days when the sight of the bullpen door swinging
open would have had Mariners fans falling on their swords. No
other American League bullpen had a higher ERA (5.94) or issued
more walks (295) in 1999 than Seattle's. "Oh, yeah," says
reliever Arthur Rhodes, an Oriole last season, when asked if
opponents were confident no Seattle lead was insurmountable.
"Playing with Baltimore, we knew the Mariners had to get a new
They did, starting with an off-season splurge for free agent
Rhodes ($13 million over four years) and Japanese import Sasaki
($9.5 million for two). Early indications are the money was well
spent. Through Sunday setup man Rhodes, 30, the Seattle
bullpen's lone lefthander, had a 2.57 ERA and had allowed only
three base runners (two walks and a homer) in seven appearances.
Sasaki, 32, who was handed the closer's job in March after the
incumbent, Jose Mesa, struggled in spring training, had three
saves and nine strikeouts in seven innings.
As a group Mariners relievers were 4 for 5 on save
opportunities, compared with 4 for 7 in the first 17 games of
1999. Including an atypically horrid performance on April 18,
when the pen was strafed for 10 runs in an 18-11 loss to the
White Sox, the relief corps' ERA stood at 4.45, fourth best in
the American League through last Saturday. Throw out the one bad
game and the ERA was 3.08.
More startling than the statistical turnaround is the new
confidence that accompanies manager Lou Piniella's pitching
changes. "There's a very calming sense when we bring these guys
in," says Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price. Adds designated
hitter Edgar Martinez, "We feel like we have a chance the whole
game, and that's a change."
"One thing I've been encouraged by is that we're throwing
strikes," says Piniella. Indeed, at week's end his relievers had
more than three times as many strikeouts (49) as bases on balls
(15), and their walks-per-nine-innings ratio, a league-worst 5.6
last season, was a stingy 2.3. The bullpen's newfound command
can be attributed in part to the pitcher-friendly dimensions at
Safeco, where pitchers can throw strikes without fear that
routine fly balls will end up in the cheap seats, as was the
case at the Kingdome. "We decided from Day One we were going to
be aggressive," says Price. "We have no reason not to go after
Sasaki, Japan's alltime saves leader, with 229 over 10 seasons,
may have the best stuff among the Mariners relievers. While he
can consistently throw both his low-90s fastball and his
curveball for strikes, his out pitch is a wicked forkball that
he can locate in the strike zone or send diving into the dirt.
"That's the one that looks like a fastball until the very end
and gets you to swing," says Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, who
grounded out to short in one at bat against Sasaki as he saved
Seattle's April 7 win over New York.
With Sasaki, Rhodes and the 33-year-old Mesa, who's being used
in middle relief, Piniella has the most experienced bullpen he
has had in eight seasons with the Mariners, a U-turn from 1999's
seasonlong tryout camp, during which he used a club-record 28
pitchers, including a major-league-high 15 rookies. "We've added
professionalism out there," says Piniella. "There's no
substitute for experience."
Darensbourg with a W
FINALLY, A TASTE OF VICTORY
Last Thursday, Marlins reliever Vic Darensbourg was credited
with the win in Florida's 3-2, 14-inning victory over the
Pirates. Thus Darensbourg ended the longest streak of winless
appearances at the start of a major league career. He'd pitched
in 123 games and had a record of 0-8.
NEW HOME APPRAISALS
Players are already finding flaws in the new ballparks in
Detroit, Houston and San Francisco as well as in Dodger Stadium,
which was given a $50 million face-lift in the off-season. The
biggest complaint at Detroit's Comerica Park, aside from the
Tigers' unsightly play, is the lack of heating in the bullpen
areas. Because of bitter cold during the opening series between
Detroit and the Mariners, managers Phil Garner and Lou Piniella
had their relievers sit in the clubhouse and loosen up in the
indoor batting cages. Unable to see the field, pitchers who were
warming up were kept abreast of the game by players and batboys
carrying updates from the dugout.
The bullpens at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco are also
viewed as, well, the pits. Crammed into foul territory down the
first and third base lines, the bullpen benches are sunk below
field level. "It's worse than the old ones in Tiger Stadium,"
says Brewers bullpen coach Bill Castro. "If you're not 6'2" or
6'3", you can't see above the fence."
No one has been hurt running up the grassy centerfield knoll or
into the flagpole that's just inside the centerfield wall at
Houston's Enron Field, but another obstacle, a concrete curb at
the bottom of the wall in left center, has fielders worried.
"Somebody is going to get hurt," says the Astros' Roger Cedeno,
who jammed his ankle on the strip while chasing a fly ball two
weeks ago. "I can't believe I didn't break my ankle."
The Astros also took an instant dislike to the dirt in their new
infield, which they say is too soft and hampers their running
game. Five out of 11 Houston runners who tried to steal at Enron
in the team's first six home games were caught. "It's slow,"
says second baseman Craig Biggio. "If we're going to be a
running team, we're going to have to firm it up."
Maybe some of that soft dirt should be sprinkled on the new
synthetic track that surrounds the field at Dodger Stadium. L.A.
third baseman Adrian Beltre, who said he's leery of diving on
the hard surface, stumbled on it while chasing a pop-up
recently. "It used to be with the dirt that you'd slide to
protect from running into the stands full-bore," says first
baseman Eric Karros. "You can't do it on this stuff."
The Edmonds Trade
SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY
The March 23 trade that sent outfielder Jim Edmonds to the
Cardinals and righthander Kent Bottenfield and second baseman
Adam Kennedy to the Angels looks like that rarest of deals: one
that immediately improves both teams. Says St. Louis manager
Tony La Russa, "This is the way trades should be."
Edmonds, leader of the Cardinals' April home run binge (44
through Sunday, on pace to break the major league record for any
month, 58, by two), has gone at National League pitching the way
Tony Soprano might attack a plate of manicott'. Through Sunday
he was hitting .379 with six homers and 17 RBIs, and he led the
league in on-base percentage (.513) and was tied for first in
walks (16) and tied for fourth in runs (18). Bottenfield had
pitched well in his first three starts, giving up 15 hits in
18 2/3 innings with a 2.41 ERA before being lit up for nine runs
in 3 2/3 innings by the Blue Jays last Thursday. That outing left
him 1-2 with a 5.64 ERA.
But Bottenfield's contribution could be considered a bonus,
because Kennedy by himself has made the deal worthwhile for
Anaheim. Despite having had only 33 games of major league
experience, Kennedy, 24, was handed the starting second base job
as soon as he joined the Angels. Through Sunday he was hitting
.321 with 15 RBIs and six stolen bases, and he was tied for
sixth in the American League in hits, with 26. "We knew the only
thing he lacked was experience," says La Russa. "He was highly
regarded, especially with the bat."
In Anaheim's 16-10 win over Toronto on April 18, the 6'1",
180-pound Kennedy tied a club record with eight RBIs; his
4-for-5 night included a grand slam and a bases-loaded triple.
He also robbed Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado of a hit
by diving to snare a line drive. "Adam is gifted with tremendous
hand-eye coordination," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "His
swing isn't textbook, but he generates tremendous leverage for a
guy who isn't that big."
May 1-3: Blue Jays at White Sox
The American League's worst pitching staff (6.90 ERA through
Sunday) visits the league's best-hitting (.313 average) and
highest-scoring team (135 runs), but Toronto's pitchers can take
heart: They've fared well against Chicago's Frank Thomas, whose
.406 average was the league's second best. The Blue Jays have
limited the Big Hurt to a .282 average, his lowest against any
club, and, aside from the expansion Devil Rays, only the Yankees
(13) have held him to fewer homers than Toronto (14) has.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
the HOT corner
Tigers batting coach Bill Madlock, whose hitters failed to
produce a run four times in their first 14 games, is scrapping
the daily batters' meeting in which a plan of attack against the
opposing pitcher is discussed. Instead, Madlock will meet with
each of his charges one-on-one before games. "In a group meeting
they don't seem to listen as much as when you take them on
individually and show them some tape," says Madlock....
With the Giants off to a disappointing start (7-11 through
Sunday), Barry Bonds is starting to daydream. "Everybody asks me
what it's like playing against Ken Griffey Jr., but I'd like to
play with him," Bonds said during San Francisco's series in
Cincinnati last week. Griffey is signed with the Reds through
2008, so Bonds would have to join him in Cincy. "I don't see
that happening," Griffey said....
Dodgers righthander Eric Gagne, who's teased often by manager
Davey Johnson about the gogglelike glasses Gagne wears on the
mound, is waiting eagerly for the day that he can undergo
corrective laser surgery. "But you can't get that until your
vision stops changing," says Gagne, 24. "My eyes get worse every
Padres second baseman Bret Boone says he's much more comfortable
batting lower in the lineup this year and not in the number 2
hole, as he did with the Braves last year when he struck out a
career-high 112 times. "I'd never hit second," says Boone, who
through Sunday was batting .296, mostly from the number 6 spot.
"Ask me and I'll tell you I'm not a number 2 hitter. I like to
attack the first good pitch I see."
in the BOX
April 19, 2000
Twins 7, Royals 6
When a team is on a nine-game losing streak, these things
happen. Kansas City rallied in the seventh inning to take a 6-3
lead over Minnesota, and had runners on first and third with two
outs and Mike Sweeney, who had a major-league-leading seven
homers, at the plate. With the count at 1 and 1, Jermaine Dye
tried to steal second; Twins catcher Marcus Jensen made a strong
throw; and Dye stopped between first and second, hoping to get
caught in a rundown so that Carlos Beltran, on third, might score.
It didn't work. Minnesota shortstop Cristian Guzman took
Jensen's throw and fired to third, where Beltran had strayed
off the bag. Now Beltran was in a rundown and, after four more
throws, was tagged by leftfielder Jacque Jones, who took a toss
from first baseman Ron Coomer and caught Beltran near home
plate. Just your basic 2-6-5-2-5-3-7 putout. Minnesota then
rallied to win by one.
Since expansion began in 1961, only six teams have opened a
season with three former batting champions, including the 1995
Yankees, who had (from left) Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill and Don
Mattingly. This year Seattle opened with a lineup--call it
Mariners' Row--in which the 3-4-5 hitters were all former
batting champs. John Olerud won the American League crown as a
Blue Jay in 1993, while Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez won
titles in '95 and '96, respectively, for Seattle.
TEAM YEAR BATTING CHAMPS FINISH
Mariners 2000 Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, ----
Yankees 1997 Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill, Tim Raines Wild card
Yankees 1996 Boggs, O'Neill, Raines World
Yankees 1995 Boggs, O'Neill, Don Mattingly Wild card
Royals 1989 George Brett, Bill Buckner, Second in
Willie Wilson AL West
Royals 1988 Brett, Buckner, Wilson Third in AL