Four's a Crowd
Hot-hitting Daryle Ward is odd man out in the Astros' loaded
Daryle Ward's nickname in the Astros' clubhouse used to be Oscar,
a nod to his thick Afro, which resembled outfielder Oscar
Gamble's famously lush 1970s 'do. Then Ward showed up this spring
with his hair in neatly braided rows, meaning that his teammates
had to come up with a new moniker. "Moises [Alou] was calling me
the Answer, after Allen Iverson, for a while," he says, "but that
didn't really catch on."
Ward would answer to anything if it meant seeing his name on the
lineup card every day. For an outfielder in Houston this year,
this is what a .400 average and 10 RBIs in the season's first 12
games gets you: a seat on the bench. Such is life for the
25-year-old Ward, who, despite those impressive numbers, was
headed for the pine as of Monday because regular outfielder Alou
was scheduled to return from the disabled list. On most other
clubs Ward's potent bat would earn him an every-day gig, but with
the Astros he's just another slugging outfielder. Alou, Ward,
centerfielder Richard Hidalgo and rightfielder Lance Berkman
combined to make Houston's outfield the most productive (117 home
runs and 366 RBIs) in the majors last season. Through Sunday that
group (minus Alou, who went on the disabled list with a strained
calf the last week of spring training) was second in the majors
in RBIs with 32, a big reason that the 8-4 Astros were off to
their best start since 1988.
The abilities of the 34-year-old Alou, a three-time All-Star who
last year drove in more than 100 runs for the third time in his
last three seasons, are well-known, and Hidalgo, now 25, revealed
himself to be one of the game's rising stars with his 44-homer,
122-RBI performance in 2000. Relative unknowns Ward and Berkman,
who hit 20 and 21 homers, respectively, last season (though
neither had more than 353 at bats), give the Houston outfield
The switch-hitting Berkman, 25, is starting ahead of Ward because
of his superior defensive skills. The Astros' top pick in the
1997 draft and originally a first baseman, Berkman rocketed
through Houston's system after being shifted to the outfield four
years ago. He was called up twice last year and appeared in 114
games. "At the winter meetings his name came up in trade talks
more than anyone else's on our team," says Houston manager Larry
Dierker. "We still had [outfielder] Roger Cedeno at the time, and
everybody wanted Berkman, but nobody was going to get him."
Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker says he regularly fields
calls from teams asking about Ward, whose graceful lefthanded
swing is the envy even of such accomplished teammates as Alou,
Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. The son of former major leaguer
Gary Ward, he too is a converted first baseman who mashed his way
through the organization. After bouncing between the majors and
minors in 1998 and '99, Ward stuck with the Astros all of last
season. He showed his power but also frustrated Houston
management with his lack of patience at the plate (15 walks in
281 plate appearances) and his ballooning weight. This winter the
6'2" Ward dropped about 10 pounds and reported to spring training
at 235. "He worked hard on his own this off-season," says
Hunsicker, who three years ago sent Ward to a weight-loss clinic
at Duke. "He came to camp in the best shape we've ever seen him
"Daryle watches the game and knows the game, and he's got a great
swing," says Biggio. "He can hit any pitch. If he gets the chance
to play every day, he'll drive in a ton of runs."
Despite Ward's hot start that chance may be hard to come by this
season: His at bats will come when Dierker rests Alou or first
baseman Bagwell. Hunsicker insists he has no plans to deal any of
his outfielders. "I'm not in the business of giving away assets,"
he says. "This is part of winning championships--creating quality
depth on your team."
Twins Take Off
Break Out The Hankies?
There was a time when the Twins' home stadium was known as the
Homer Dome, when Minnesota fans gleefully waved Homer Hankies
every time one of their heroes bashed a ball out of the park.
Such tales must sound like folklore to today's young fans--the
Twins finished among the bottom three in the American League in
home runs each of the past eight seasons--but there was Minnesota
last week, reviving its power hitting past and hammering to the
best start (9-2) in Twins history. Through Sunday, Minnesota had
15 homers, tied for fifth-most in the league.
Sure it's early, but who would have expected the team with the
lowest payroll in the majors ($24.4 million) to have anything to
be excited about after even just two weeks of the season?
"They're legit," White Sox lefthander David Wells said after
being roughed up for five runs, eight hits and two home runs in
seven innings of the Twins' 9-4 win last Saturday. "As a pitcher,
you have to go out like you're facing the Yankees or the
"The bullpen is solid, and [Brad] Radke, [Eric] Milton and [Mark]
Redman are a good top three for any rotation," says one American
League scout. "If they can get someone to hit for power, they can
be a dangerous team."
Minnesota has shown that capacity already. It scored at least six
runs in seven of its first 10 games, and through Sunday only the
Yankees among American League teams had scored more runs.
Designated hitter David Ortiz, a 25-year-old with prodigious
power but little discipline, was hitting .405 with three homers,
12 RBIs and only five strikeouts in 37 at bats. Shortstop
Cristian Guzman already had five triples, more than every other
team in the majors. "We believe in ourselves," says leftfielder
For a perpetually rebuilding franchise, that may be its most
important accomplishment this season.
Armed and Dangerous
Last Thursday, Reds righthander Scott Williamson had surgery to
repair a torn ligament in his pitching elbow, which will cost the
1999 National League Rookie of the Year the rest of this season
and possibly part of next. Williamson's injury--like that of Cubs
righthander Kerry Wood two years ago--raises the question of
whether some young pitchers, because of their delivery or the way
in which they're used, are at high risk of career-threatening
damage to their arms. In the past two-plus years Williamson was
moved back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, where
he carried a heavy load. "I was surprised it took that long for
Williamson to get hurt, the way the Reds used him," says Astros
general manager Gerry Hunsicker.
"Even guys with the best deliveries can have those things
happen," says Brewers pitching coach Bob Apodaca, "but pitchers
who have violent deliveries put even more stress on joints."
Williamson, 25, certainly falls into the latter category. His
delivery makes him what pitching coaches refer to as a
"maximum-effort guy," a pitcher who has a violent motion and
expends lots of energy forcing the ball to the plate.
Williamson's delivery places great strain on his arm, and the
Reds have spent a lot of time working with him to develop a more
fluid motion. However, completely rebuilding a throwing style is
difficult. "There's a fine line between getting a pitcher to take
stress off his arm," says Cincinnati pitching coach Don Gullet,
"and forcing him to be so uncomfortable that he can't throw
The stress on Williamson's arm was most likely compounded by his
repertoire and workload. He relied on a split-fingered fastball,
a pitch that taxes the elbow and forearm, and he tended to
overthrow in an attempt to blow fastballs by hitters. Exclusively
a starter as a minor leaguer, Williamson was thrust into the
Reds' bullpen as a rookie in 1999 and threw 931/3 innings--tied
for fifth-most among National League relievers--in 62 games. After
Williamson began last season in the bullpen, Cincinnati moved him
into the rotation in July. He was back in the pen this year after
losing his starting spot to rookie righthander Chris Reitsma in
spring training. In his second appearance of the season he felt
tenderness in his elbow. An MRI revealed the ligament damage.
Such role-switching makes it hard for a pitcher to establish a
rhythm to aid recovery between outings. "Often an injury is a
one-pitch injury," says Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, who
stresses that he doesn't know the specifics of Williamson's case,
"but I would say fatigue could be a factor. Your delivery falls
apart when you get fatigued. This would cause a bad throw or a
series of bad throws, and one of them could cause you to blow
The moral? Teams do what they can to coddle young pitchers,
especially those with a violent delivery or a history of arm
trouble. That approach often goes out the window in the heat of a
pennant race. "I'm conscious of protecting young arms," says
Astros manager Larry Dierker, "but when you have a chance to win
it all, you almost have to do whatever you can. You can protect
guys through the minor leagues, but it's hard to protect them in
Hot in the Desert
April 23-25, Marlins at Diamondbacks
Maybe it's the dry heat. Maybe it's the allergen-free air.
Whatever the reason, Florida loves to hit in Arizona. Every
Marlins regular except rightfielder Eric Owens (.289) and catcher
Charles Johnson (.200) has a career average of .333 or better at
Bank One Ballpark. Leading the way are centerfielder Preston
Wilson, who has batted .514 and homered four times, and third
baseman Mike Lowell, who has hit .478 with five home runs and 13
RBIs. The most surprising bat in the bunch belongs to shortstop
Alex Gonzalez, a .237 career hitter in every other ballpark. His
average in 34 at bats at the BOB is .353.
For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
in the Box
Red Sox 3, Yankees 2
Most Greek tragedies turn on a hero's hubris, and this episode
of the Boston-New York rivalry--baseball's Oresteia--was no
different. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera had a 2-1 lead in the
10th; the Red Sox had men on first and second with two outs and
Manny Ramirez at the plate. Rivera's first pitch was a passed
ball that moved the runners up and left first base open for an
intentional walk. Though Ramirez, a righthanded hitter, was 0
for 12 lifetime against the righty Rivera, he's an RBI machine.
On deck was Troy O'Leary, a lefthanded hitter but a far less
potent run producer.
Rivera, however, chose to pitch to Ramirez. The law of averages
trumped Rivera's overweaning pride: Two pitches later Ramirez
smashed a fastball for a game-winning two-run single.
Two advance scouts, one from each league, discuss what they saw
and heard last week
There's talk that manager Larry Rothschild has lost control of
the Devil Rays' clubhouse. There's a bit of a deathwatch in
Tampa, with him the front-runner to be the first manager fired
Former pitching coaches, like Rothschild, don't seem to work as
managers. It might have something to do with the rivalry between
pitchers and position players. I don't think the regulars
respect guys who played every fifth day....
It's early, but Phillies reliever Ricky Bottalico is throwing as
well as he did when he was Philly's closer four years ago. He's
got his fastball up to 96 mph, and he's throwing a good
curveball. Bottalico and Jose Mesa--his fastball is up around
96, too--have definitely solidified the Phillies' bullpen....
The Yankees' second-line hitters, guys like Scott Brosius, are
off to a good start, and some of the credit has to go to new
hitting coach Gary Denbo. He communicates better with the
hitters than the guy they had last year, Chris Chambliss....
Marlins catcher Charles Johnson is striking out a lot (15 times
in 37 at bats through Sunday). I think it's because his swing is
getting long again--a troubling sign. Florida leftfielder Cliff
Floyd, on the other hand, looks unbelievable. He's hitting the
ball hard and might be the best hitter in baseball right now....
The Expos are a real surprise. They're thin, but their
1-through-8 lineup is better than people think. They'll give
The Angels got off to a solid start, thanks to their 8 and 9
hitters, second baseman David Eckstein and shortstop Benji Gil.
Everything those guys have hit has found a hole. Compare that
with such good-hitting teams as the A's and Indians, who have
yet to get on track.