Inside Baseball

May 06, 2001

Carrying a Big Stick
Soft-spoken Juan Gonzalez, healthy and happy again, is off to a
loud start in Cleveland

Seated in a silent Jacobs Field clubhouse before a game last
week, Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel conceded that he misses the
sounds. "Manny used to play his weird music and some salsa,"
Vizquel said, "but now we don't have guys in here that do that.
We have no DJ this year."

Manny, of course, is slugger Manny Ramirez, who left Cleveland as
a free agent to join the Red Sox in December. The Indians
replaced Ramirez three weeks later with another free-agent
masher, Juan Gonzalez, and now--beyond the decibel level on the
clubhouse stereo--it's hard to tell that Manny is gone. Gonzalez,
hitting in the cleanup spot vacated by Ramirez, has ensured that
the Indians' lineup continues to make music even without their
front man of the past seven seasons. As of Sunday, Gonzalez
ranked first in the American League in slugging percentage
(.753); tied for fourth, behind Ramirez, in home runs (eight);
third in batting average (.387); and second, behind Ramirez, in
RBIs (26).

Such production shouldn't be a surprise from Gonzalez, who came
into this season with 362 home runs, 1,142 RBIs and two MVP
awards after 10 full major league seasons--and who had batted .344
with 12 homers and 36 RBIs in 30 games as a visiting player at
Jacobs Field--but it represents a significant comeback for him.
The Indians couldn't be sure which Juan they were getting when
they signed him to a one-year deal for the bargain price of $10
million. Would it be the RBI machine who has driven in the
third-most runs among active players since 1991? Or would it be
the player who sulked through an injury-plagued 2000 season with
the Tigers, playing only 115 games and finishing with 22 homers
and 67 RBIs?

Gonzalez gave a hint on Opening Day, when he hit two home runs
and helped throw out a pair of runners from rightfield. He
reaffirmed that he's back last Thursday, when he smacked a pitch
a foot off the plate with one hand for a 384-foot, game-winning
homer against the Angels, and again last Saturday when he gunned
down runners on back-to-back plays against the Rangers for his
league-leading fourth and fifth outfield assists of the year.
"Everybody talks about how great Manny is," says Vizquel. "This
guy is way up there too."

That fact was nearly forgotten last season, easily the worst of
Gonzalez's career, and during the off-season, when Gonzalez
remained available in the free-agent market until after the
shelves had been cleared of other big names. In an attempt to
ensure that his subpar performance would be an aberration,
Gonzalez spent the off-season adhering to a program of
stretching, aerobics and weight work aimed at strengthening his
back. (His 2000 season was cut short by a herniated disk.) In the
process he shaved 10 pounds off his 6'3", 220-pound frame. "I
feel much more comfortable, and my bat speed is better," he says.
"I feel much more flexible, especially in the outfield."

The Indians have been impressed with Gonzalez's skills in
rightfield and on the bases. Those aspects of his game might even
make him an upgrade over Ramirez, who, for all his offensive
output, can be a liability when he doesn't have a bat in his
hands. "Juan's offense overshadows his defense," says Cleveland
second baseman Roberto Alomar, a close friend of Gonzalez's. "He
knows how to position himself, and he has a good arm."

"I always looked at him as a great hitter," says Indians manager
Charlie Manuel, "but he's a complete player. He doesn't say much;
you'll just see him smile once in a while."

That smile, like Gonzalez's offense, was something that was
scarcely seen in 2000. "I feel happy," he says now. "That's a big
difference from last year."

Zone Fallout
Strikes Up, Hitting Down

Scoring in the majors is down from 10.8 runs a game last April to
9.6 through Sunday, and there's no shortage of theories to
explain why. "Pitchers are getting ahead in the count more," says
Rangers general manager Doug Melvin. "The weather this spring has
been much colder than last spring in a majority of places," says
Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski. Twins righthander Brad
Radke has the simplest explanation. "Maybe," he says, "the
pitching's just better."

Whatever the reason or reasons, the offensive bull market of
recent seasons turned bearish this April. The American League
batting average dropped from .278 last April to .261 with one day
left in April 2001, and walks decreased from 7.46 per game to
6.73. Similar trends held in the National League, in which
batting average fell from .264 to .260 and walks per game crashed
from 8.16 to 6.84.

The most likely explanation? Confusion over the new strike zone,
which hitters, pitchers and umpires are still trying to sort out.
"Much was made of how uniform umpires were going to be on the new
strike zone, and it hasn't happened," says Giants second baseman
Jeff Kent. "The inconsistency has made it much tougher on the
batters because we've been conditioned to know what's a strike
and what isn't, and now it's changed."

Most players say umpires have been inconsistent in enforcing the
new high strike and in eliminating the wide strike. "Some umps
are calling the high pitches," according to Red Sox catcher Scott
Hatteberg, "but a lot are still calling the pitch four or five
inches off the plate. The zone is that much bigger."

Predictably, some pitchers insist that they're getting squeezed
("The strike zone has gotten a lot smaller--no corners--and the
umpires are inconsistent with the high pitch," says Cardinals
reliever Mike Matthews), and the sudden wildness of, say, the
Braves' Tom Glavine, who through Sunday had issued 5.6 walks per
nine innings, nearly twice his career rate, suggests that on
occasion they are. Twins manager Tom Kelly believes that the new
strike zone has varied from ump to ump almost as much as the old
one did. "You'll go a few games without seeing the high strike,"
says Kelly, "then, all of a sudden, there it is again."

The only consensus: Confusion over the strike zone plants doubts
in hitters' minds, and that could explain the drop in scoring.
"It's probably affecting the hitters more because they don't know
if it [the high strike] will be called," says Boston reliever Rod
Beck. Adds one National League advance scout: "Before, hitters
just looked down, because anything over a certain line would be
called a ball. Now those pitches might be strikes, so hitters
have to track them. Once you have to move your eyes, it's tougher
to hit."

Sanders's Sweet Start
No Candy Bars For this Reggie

Through Sunday, Diamondbacks rightfielder Reggie Sanders was
batting .344, with eight home runs and 19 RBIs. "I'm 33 and in
the best shape of my life," says Sanders. "That has made all the
difference."

And what a difference. After coming to the Braves in December
1999 from the Padres as part of a six-player deal, Sanders, who
was expected to yield speed and power as Atlanta's No. 2 hitter,
provided zip. He hit .194 for the first five months of the season
and missed 59 games largely due to ankle and hamstring ailments.
Even with a strong September, he finished with a .232 average,
the lowest of his nine full seasons in the majors.

Determined to turn things around on the field and to shed his
reputation for being injury-prone (through 2000 Sanders had been
on the DL 14 times), Sanders spent the off-season working out six
days a week with a personal trainer. He also studied yoga and
continued to practice karate, in which he holds a black belt. He
eliminated fatty foods, even giving up his beloved Kit Kat bars.
(Well, almost: "I still sneak one from time to time," he admits.)

The perseverance and privation paid off. In January, Diamondbacks
general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., impressed by the off-season
efforts of a player he had pursued the previous two winters,
offered Sanders a one-year, $1.5 million contract. It wasn't a
jumbo payday for Sanders, who had made $3.7 million with Atlanta,
but it wasn't peanuts either, and he bit at the chance for a
fresh start. Sanders reported to spring training with a ripped
205 pounds on his 6'1" frame. "I added 15 pounds of muscle," he
says. "I couldn't sit back and let last season repeat itself."

It almost did. After straining his right hamstring in spring
training, Sanders opened the season on the DL and missed the
first five games. While the inactivity was mainly a precaution,
one couldn't blame Sanders for having flashbacks. "When you go
through what I experienced last year, you take nothing for
granted," he says. "I wanted to get out there and show these guys
that I'm ready to contribute. There's still a lot I can do."
--Jeff Pearlman

Unraveling White Sox
A Cruel April in Chicago

Several teams who expected to contend for division titles--the
A's, Braves, Cardinals, Mets, Yankees--sputtered in the season's
first month. None of them, however, has stumbled as badly as the
White Sox, who are struggling in every aspect of the game.
Chicago, which won the American League Central and had the
league's best record last season, was 8-15 through Sunday and
trailed the first-place Twins by nine games. No team since the
1987 Tigers has won a division title after finishing April more
than five games out of first place, and the Sox have shown few
signs that they might buck that trend. Says one American League
scout, "This team is in panic mode."

As expected, the Chicago rotation has been shaky--the starters
were tied for pitching the third-fewest innings in the league,
and their 5.68 ERA was third from the bottom. Things don't figure
to get better soon: Righthander James Baldwin has been erratic in
his two starts since returning from a shoulder injury, and
lefthander Jim Parque (0-3, 8.04 ERA) was sent to the bullpen
after complaining of a sore shoulder last week.

Last year the White Sox compensated for the deficiencies of their
rotation with airtight relief pitching and a bludgeoning offense.
This season's bullpen had the league's third-highest ERA (4.64),
and the lineup had failed in an area it excelled in a year ago:
getting on base. Chicago had the league's fourth-best on-base
percentage, .356, in 2000; through Sunday that mark was a
fifth-worst .311. Fewer base runners means fewer scoring
opportunities. While the Sox were hitting a respectable .274 with
runners in scoring position, only the Angels had fewer at bats in
those situations.

If April's trends continue, the American League Central could
witness a baseball first: the Twins going from worst to first, in
the same season that the Sox go from first to worst.

On Deck
Broad St. Bully
May 4-6, Giants at Phillies

Having reached the 500-career-home-run mark on April 17, San
Francisco slugger Barry Bonds could get a leg up on the march to
600 in this series. He has hit 25 homers at Veterans Stadium,
more than any other active major leaguer who has never played for
Philadelphia. Plus, Bonds will probably get to face a favorite
victim. In his 25 at bats against lefthander Omar Daal, the
Phillies' likely starter on Sunday, Bonds has gone deep three
times. Then again, Bonds must view any pitcher in a Phillies
uniform as so much cheese steak. He has homered 56 times against
Philadelphia, more than against any other team.

For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON

ENEMY LINES

Two advance scouts, one from each league, discuss what they saw
and heard last week

The Rangers' Darren Oliver might have the messiest 4-0 record in
the history of baseball. He gets nine or 10 runs of support
every time out [actually, it's 8.8], and he needs every bit of
it. None of the other Texas starters are doing much better, and
the pressure's mounting on manager Johnny Oates because he's
wearing out that bullpen. The vultures could start sniffing
around there soon....

Astros righthander Wade Miller has stuff as nasty as there is.
He has four plus pitches: fastball, curve, slider and a changeup
with late sinking action. He's not Pedro, but he might be close.
He has a chance for double-digit strikeouts every time he
pitches....

Speaking of Pedro Martinez, there's a little bit of concern
about him in Boston because his command has been off this year.
No panic, just concern. Maybe he's mortal....

The Rick Ankiel thing is really hurting the Cardinals. They
might have to get another starter, especially since Dustin
Hermanson is struggling. I thought pitching coach Dave Duncan
would get Hermanson to use his changeup more, but it hasn't
happened....

The Blue Jays' Esteban Loaiza is one of the surprises of the
American League. He has good composure and is relaxed on the
mound for the first time. He used to go through the order a few
times and then have the wheels fall off.

in the BOX

April 26
Red Sox 2, Twins 0

Minnesota's Torii Hunter led off the seventh inning with a flare
to right off Hideo Nomo, who had thrown a no-hitter on April 4
and was trying to become the first pitcher since Nolan Ryan in
1973 to throw two no-nos in a season. Boston rightfielder Darren
Lewis, a Gold Glover who went a big-league-record 392 games
without an error, broke back on the ball and then came charging
in to try a feet-first sliding catch. The ball glanced off the
edge of his glove, allowing Hunter to reach first. The question:
Was it a cheap hit or an error on Lewis?

Bob Ellis, a minor league official scorer working his first major
league game, at Fenway Park, immediately--and correctly--ruled the
play a hit. Nomo was lifted after the seventh, and the Twins got
their second and final hit in the ninth off reliever Lowe. "If
he'd caught the ball, I think we all would have said it was a
great play," Ellis said of Lewis's attempt. Lewis disagreed:
"It's a play I make 99 percent of the time. I should have made
the play."

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)