ROCKING AND FIRING
A mechanical adjustment by John Rocker could spell trouble for
the Braves' playoff foes
September 16 was a scary day for potential Braves postseason
opponents. Entrusted with an eight-run lead in the ninth inning
against the Diamondbacks, Atlanta reliever Scott Kamieniecki
coughed up five runs, and Terry Mulholland then let in one more,
all without their retiring a batter. With the score 12-10 and the
Bank One Ballpark crowd roaring for more scores, Braves manager
Bobby Cox summoned embattled lefthander John Rocker. Rocker
sprinted to the mound and struck out the side on 13 pitches. "He
completely shut them down," said Atlanta pitching coach Leo
Mazzone. "He threw some gas."
Not that Cox lacked for options in closing out that game. The
Braves' bullpen, so often a question mark during Atlanta's
decadelong romp atop the National League, through Sunday led the
league with a franchise-record 52 saves and had three relievers
in double figures--lefthanders Rocker (23) and Mike Remlinger (12)
and righthander Kerry Ligtenberg (12). The Braves had converted
80% of their save opportunities, the best rate in the majors. "We
all have a lot of confidence in our bullpen," says catcher Javy
Lopez. "Especially at playoff time."
The ringleader of the group is again Rocker, who has quietly
regained his form after a troubled first half. Suspended for the
season's first two weeks because of his controversial remarks to
SI last December, Rocker started badly and was sent to Triple A
Richmond on June 5. He was recalled on June 14 but continued to
struggle, giving up five runs and walking eight in his first five
outings. Since then Rocker has excelled. Through Sunday he had
nailed down 11 of 12 save opportunities and had a 1.30 ERA in 30
games. During the last month he has been especially fearsome: In
13 appearances since Aug. 20 Rocker had struck out 19, walked one
and allowed only two runs in 12 2/3 innings. "Over the past four
or five weeks he's looked just like he did last year," says
Mazzone, referring to Rocker's breakout season, in which he went
38 for 45 in saves and whiffed 104 batters in 72 1/3 innings.
Rocker's resurgence has been spurred by an adjustment he made in
his mechanics soon after returning from the minors. Upon watching
videotapes of his 1999 outings and comparing them with his 2000
efforts, Rocker and Mazzone discovered that Rocker's left arm was
tensing up as soon as he separated his hands in his delivery.
Last season he had stayed relaxed until he reached the top of his
motion. The extra tension was slowing Rocker's arm as he reared
back, thus throwing off the timing of his delivery, flattening
his breaking ball and causing his pitches to stay high in--or
above--the strike zone. "He was trying to do too much, trying to
throw harder than he could," says Mazzone. "I told him, There's
nothing wrong with throwing 95 and knowing where the ball is
The extra arm tension was also wearing Rocker out, a problem that
disappeared once the flaw was corrected. "After pitching an
inning or so, he'd say, 'Man, I feel like I just threw nine
innings,'" says Mazzone. Since the beginning of July, Rocker had
pitched on back-to-back days seven times through Sunday; he had
allowed only one earned run, struck out seven and walked two in
those second-day games--a sign that he was ready for frequent work
in a short postseason series.
"He's more in control," says Lopez of the closer. "He's not the
same guy I saw at the beginning of the season."
Taking Stock in San Diego
Any general manager whose team is about to finish nearly 20 games
out of first place has his work cut out for him, but the Padres'
Kevin Towers faces an especially tough winter. His bosses, owner
John Moores and president/CEO Larry Lucchino, have asked Towers
to trim about $15 million from the San Diego payroll, which stood
at $55 million on Opening Day. "We want to be competitive, but
ownership is tired of losing money," says Towers. "We've started
to get younger with an eye toward being competitive when we get
into our new park."
That stadium, which is scheduled to open in July 2002, is the
Padres' light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel may be
getting longer. Lucchino announced last week that work on the
park will be suspended on Oct. 2 because the city has been slow
in its issuance of permanent bond funding, which is a critical
part of the stadium financing plan, and the Padres can't afford
to keep the project going themselves. The stoppage could delay
the park's opening until 2003. "That hurts," says Towers, who
knows the new stadium will increase revenue. "The sooner we can
get in there, the sooner we can be active in the free-agent
Cobbling together a competitive team and nursing the stadium
project are just two of San Diego's off-season concerns. By
Towers's count 12 pitchers in the San Diego system had surgery
this year; the G.M. has called an organizational meeting this
week so the front office, scouting, coaching and medical staffs
can assess everyone's health and decide whom to keep on the
40-man roster. There's also the Tony Gwynn dilemma. The
40-year-old Gwynn, who played in only 36 games this year before
undergoing what turned out to be season-ending arthroscopic
surgery on his left knee in late June, has a $6 million option
for 2001 that the Padres are all but obligated to pick up to
avoid a p.r. disaster. However, as Towers says, "Do you want to
pay a part-time player $6 million?"
Farewell at Last
Sept. 29-Oct. 1: Cubs at Pirates Chicago and Pittsburgh could
celebrate the final series ever at 30-year-old Three Rivers
Stadium in fitting fashion: by fighting to stay out of last
place. Either the Cubs or the Pirates have brought up the rear
in all seven seasons that the National League Central has
existed; through Sunday, Chicago occupied the cellar, 2 1/2
games behind fifth-place Pittsburgh, which will move into a new
stadium, PNC Park, next season. On Friday the Bucs will pay
tribute to Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, a member of two
Pirates World Series-winning clubs (1971 and '79) who hit more
homers (147) at Three Rivers than any other player. Then they
will spend three games trying to keep major league leader Sammy
Sosa (50 dingers)--seeking his first home run crown--from
leaving the yard.
the HOT corner
No one is more surprised at the Giants' waltz to the National
League West title than the San Francisco players themselves, most
of whom were on the roster when the Giants missed the postseason
in 1998 and '99. "It's shocking, overwhelming," says leftfielder
Barry Bonds. "I didn't think anybody would catch the
Diamondbacks. I thought they would run away with it." ...
It's hard to feel sorry for righty aces Greg Maddux (19-8, 2.91
ERA through Sunday) and Pedro Martinez (17-6, 1.78), but imagine
what their numbers might be if they'd had a little help. In
Maddux's eight losses, the Braves scored a total of 13 runs.
Martinez had it worse: In his six defeats the Red Sox had seven
runs. In three of those they failed to score while Martinez was
in the game...
Has the novelty worn off in Denver? Through Sunday the Rockies
were averaging crowds of 40,898, a drop of 2,078 from 1999.
Colorado will fail to lead the majors in total attendance for the
first time in its eight-year existence...
Searching for a way to create playing time for their many
outfielders, the Royals are planning to give rightfielder
Jermaine Dye, a Gold Glove candidate, occasional work at first
base next season. "I'm a big and tall guy who doesn't have that
much speed," says the 6'5" Dye. "I get pretty good jumps [in the
outfield], but down the road I won't have the same quick
reaction. Hopefully first base will be a good spot for me."...
Until last Saturday, when the Devil Rays lost to the Blue Jays
7-6, Tampa Bay had failed to score more than five runs in 29
straight games. That tied the 1980 Padres for the longest such
streak since a 40-game run by the '71 Phillies...
Who needs the Olympics? In the Red Sox' 7-4 win over the Indians
on Sept. 19, pitchers from seven nations took the mound. Besides
six from the U.S., Boston used pitchers from Canada (Rheal
Cormier), the Dominican Republic (Hipolito Pichardo), Japan
(Tomo Ohka) and Venezuela (Rich Garces), while Cleveland brought
in relievers from Australia (Cameron Cairncross) and Mexico