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Inside Baseball

Sept. 03, 2001
Sept. 03, 2001

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Sept. 3, 2001

NFL Preview 2001

Inside Baseball

Youth Serves
With their precocious play and poise, five rookies have kept the
Phillies in the chase

This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2001 issue Original Layout

Right after the All-Star break, Phillies rookie shortstop Jimmy
Rollins hit the wall. His legs felt heavy, his bat looked slow,
and his mental sharpness began to blur, enough so that Phillies
manager Larry Bowa recommended that Rollins conserve energy by
cutting his pregame routine. Instead of taking more than 100
ground balls every day, Rollins limited himself to about 50.
Instead of heading for the indoor cage for extra hitting after
batting practice, Rollins chilled in the clubhouse. "Soon I felt
fine and started bouncing again," says Rollins, who through
Sunday had started 124 of Philadelphia's 129 games, "but for
about a two-week span there I was dragging."

Midyear fatigue--finally, some typical rookie behavior from one of
Philadelphia's first-year players. Through Sunday the Phillies
trailed the Braves by two games in the National League East, and
they had a quintet of rookies to thank for the fact that they
were still in contention for their first playoff spot since 1993.
The youth movement runs up the middle of the field, where
conventional wisdom states a team must have veterans to be a
contender. In addition to Rookie of the Year candidate Rollins,
22, there's catcher Johnny Estrada, 25, and three righthanded
starters: David Coggin, 24; Brandon Duckworth, 25; and Nelson
Figueroa, 27.

In mid-May, after All-Star catcher Mike Lieberthal went down for
the year with a torn ACL, Estrada was called up from Triple A
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and handled the bulk of the catching until
veteran Todd Pratt was acquired in July to share the duties.
(Estrada was hitting .245, with six home runs and 29 RBIs in 67
games.) In late June, the calls started going out for pitching
help. "It would be great if we had a bunch of guys who have been
through the wars," general manager Ed Wade says of the makeup of
his team heading into the stretch, "but we have some very
athletic kids who haven't shown a bit of shyness about playing
the game."

Since spring training, when he was handed the starting job, the
supremely confident Rollins has been the least shy of the bunch.
He was batting .278 with a league-leading 40 stolen bases,
including a streak of 35 attempts without being caught. Rollins,
who was given the job more because of his defensive than his
offensive skills, also led the league in triples (10) and at bats
(528). "Jimmy has done a great job," says Bowa. "He brings an
energy to our team on the field and in the clubhouse."

If Rollins has been the Phillies' offensive spark all season, his
fellow rookies in the rotation have kept the club on the Braves'
heels. Coggin, Duckworth and Figueroa were a combined 10-7 with a
3.39 ERA. Acquired in the trade that sent Curt Schilling to the
Diamondbacks last year, Figueroa was the first of the threesome
to be called up from Triple A. He joined the rotation on June 26
as a replacement for the struggling Amaury Telemaco and showed
poise as well as a six-pitch repertoire (two- and four-seam
fastballs, curveball, changeup, split-finger and slider). "I
might not have all of them working every night," says Figueroa
(4-4, 3.82), who pitched for seven seasons in the minors, "but I
can usually throw two or three for strikes."

Coggin, once one of the organization's top pitching prospects,
spent the past two seasons recovering from 1999 shoulder surgery.
He was brought up two days after Figueroa's debut and, following
a shaky first outing, had allowed more than three earned runs
just once in 10 starts. In early July, Wade planned to scour the
trade market for a veteran starter, but the strong showings by
Figueroa and Coggin persuaded him to look instead for veteran
bullpen help. He acquired relievers Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell
from the Mets, in essence betting the season on the idea that his
rookie hurlers could complement ace Omar Daal (12-4). "We knew we
had Duckworth ready to come up," Wade says, "so we figured we'd
make a commitment to these guys."

Though he was an undrafted free agent in 1997, Duckworth became
the crown jewel of the Phillies' system. He was summoned to the
majors on Aug. 4, and in his four starts he was 2-0 with a 2.77
ERA. Armed with 93-mph heat and a sharp curveball, he's a
potential ace. That designation can wait, but Duckworth has
already won his teammates' confidence as the Phillies prepare for
the season's final month.

"They're all so poised," says 31-year-old centerfielder Doug
Glanville, who, in his sixth season, is the most grizzled vet in
Philadelphia's regular lineup. "I don't expect any rookie
collapse from these guys."

Minnesota's Collapse
Second Half Not Half As Good

A graph of the Twins' season looks like the first leg of a
roller-coaster ride: one big climb, then a terrifying descent.
Minnesota streaked to the American League's second-best record in
the first half (55-32) and at the All-Star break held a five-game
lead over the Indians in the Central Division. Since then the
youthful Twins have endured a historic collapse. Through Sunday
they were 14-30 in the second half, and that tailspin had dropped
them 4 1/2 games behind Cleveland. Most amazing was that the Tribe
had pulled off the 9 1/2-game turnaround in the standings during a
stretch in which they were just three games over .500 (24-21).

Forget all about the postseason. The Twins are in danger of
finishing below .500--and that's after they swept the lowly Royals
over the weekend. Says Minnesota centerfielder Torii Hunter,
"It's like we've got a hex on us."

So, which are the real Twins, the first-half streakers or the
second-half stiffs? Probably neither. Minnesota, which had the
majors' lowest Opening Day payroll ($24 million), is stocked with
young talent, especially in its rotation, but the club most
likely overachieved in playing at a 100-win pace through
mid-July. The Twins' early-season strength, starting pitching,
has faltered--the rotation was 8-12 with a 4.96 ERA since Aug.
1--and the team's decline has magnified shortcomings, particularly
on offense, that were glossed over early in the year. Minnesota's
run production, never overwhelming, had dropped from 5.2 runs per
game before the break to 4.0 since.

That drop-off is attributable to a number of factors, some within
the team's control and some beyond. All-Star shortstop and lineup
catalyst Cristian Guzman spent a month on the disabled list with
a shoulder injury. However, the lineup was also weakened by the
trade of rightfielder Matt Lawton to the Mets for righthander
Rick Reed before the July 31 deadline. Further, as Minnesota's
slide worsened, its young hitters began to press. "For the last
two months they've been trying to do a little too much," manager
Tom Kelly said last week. "You start expecting too much every
day, and that's quite a burden to handle. This is a young team
learning how to play."

Arizona's Surprise at Second
Junior Upstages His Seniors

Three months ago Junior Spivey was a weak-hitting infielder at
Triple A Tucson who had played a total of 132 games since the
beginning of the 1999 season. He didn't look like a candidate to
be called up to the big leagues by a pennant contender, let alone
to supplant a former All-Star who is making $8 million this
season. "I've seen it happen time and time again," says
Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly, whose team was the National
League West front-runner at week's end. "A young guy gets a
chance, and he brings some energy and enthusiasm and gives a team
a huge lift. That's what Junior has done."

On a team that lives and dies with stars like slugging
leftfielder Luis Gonzalez and flamethrowing starting pitchers
Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the unheralded Spivey, 26, has
provided an unlikely spark. Through Sunday he had started 17 of
Arizona's last 21 games at second base (the Diamondbacks were
13-4 in those games), wresting the job from Jay Bell, who was
hitting a meager .245. Overall Spivey was hitting .261 in 52
games, with four home runs, 18 RBIs and a .360 on-base percentage
(third best on the team, after Gonzalez and Mark Grace). He had
also committed just two errors and had injected an element of
athleticism and speed that had been missing from the
Diamondbacks' aging lineup.

"I definitely didn't envision being in the big leagues this
early," he says of his June 2 call-up. "I would have been happy
just getting a chance in September."

Spivey was hitting only .232 for the Triple A Sidewinders when he
was summoned because the Diamondbacks needed an extra infielder,
but he had shown signs of breaking out of his slump. (A
three-homer game on May 27 was one indication.) He got his first
major league start in place of the slumping Bell on June 7 and
went 2 for 3 with a homer. In his next start, two days later,
Spivey tripled.

The pattern continued for six weeks, with Spivey and Bell
splitting time at second and Spivey contributing whenever he
played. Since his call-up he'd had two five-hit games, making him
the fifth rookie in the past 50 years to have a pair. "I gave
Junior a start, and he got some big hits," says Brenly. "I played
him again, and the same thing happened. It wasn't an easy
decision because of what Jay Bell has done in his career, but it
became clear which way we needed to go."

Brenly has been impressed with Spivey's speed, his range in the
field and his patience at the plate (20 walks in 161 plate
appearances). The latter attribute is particularly striking
because Spivey has less experience than his age might suggest. He
concentrated on basketball at Douglass High in Oklahoma City and
didn't take baseball seriously until he got to Cowley County
(Kans.) Junior College. The Diamondbacks took a flier on him in
the 26th round of the 1996 draft. His progress through their farm
system stalled in '99, when a broken bone in his left hand
limited him to 44 games. Last year he missed time with a torn
hamstring and played only a total of 34 games in Double A and
Triple A. "I've always felt like I was behind," Spivey says.

He may get his chance to catch up down the stretch. Brenly says
he hasn't ruled out a return to the starting lineup for Bell,
who, in the final year of a four-year, $34 million contract, has
reluctantly but graciously accepted his limited role. Still,
Brenly concedes, "if Junior continues to do what he's been doing,
there may be no reason to take him out of there."

Mays Motivates Bonds
Suiting Up for The Giants

Consider this the modern version of the men's store ads that used
to adorn outfield fences, challenging batters to hit this sign
and win a free suit. When Barry Bonds started to close in on the
Giants' single-season record for home runs a few weeks ago,
Willie Mays came up with what he felt was a fitting incentive for
Bonds, who is his godson, to keep swinging. Mays bought 12 suits,
one for each team batting record he owned. Mays then offered them
as prizes to Bonds, beginning when Bonds smashed his 53rd home
run on Aug. 16 to break Mays's record. "When I saw him, Barry
said, 'I gotcha,' which means I've got to give him a suit," Mays
says. "But that's just one."

Added Mays, "He's the type of kid who needs motivation, and I
know what motivates him. He doesn't realize that one year I got
20 triples; he's got to get that. I got 3,187 hits [in his
Giants' career]; he's got to get that. I got 646 home runs [with
the club]; he's got to get that. So, I'll put the suits in the
closet and tell him, 'The next time you do something, you come
pick one up.'"

On Deck
Acid Test

Sept. 1, Yankees at Red Sox

There will be two questions for Pedro Martinez to answer in this
showdown between the top two teams in the American League East.
One: Is Boston's ace righthander fully recovered from the
inflamed pitching shoulder that put him on the disabled list for
two months? (This will be the second start for Martinez, who was
set to return against the Rangers on Sunday.) Two: Can he beat
New York? Despite a sparkling 2.51 ERA in his 14 career starts
against the Yankees, Martinez is just 6-5, his worst record
against any AL opponent. What's more, in his last seven starts
against them, he is 1-3.

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

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN The confident Rollins, leading the league with 40 steals, has been caught just three times this year.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER (SPIVEY) Arizona call-up Spivey played his way into a starting job at second base.COLOR PHOTO: ALEXANDER GLOBAL PROMO

enemy Lines

Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week:

The Diamondbacks' Mark Grace is hitting the hell out of the
ball, as well as he ever has. Whatever your best pitch is, I
wouldn't throw it to him too often because he'll be looking for
it--and he'll hit it....

Over the last month or so lefthander Ricardo Rincon has thrown
the ball well, and he's going to be key for the Indians down the
stretch. He's finally throwing his big sweeping curveball again,
getting lefthanded hitters off balance.... I'm disappointed in
Royals outfielder Carlos Beltran. Everyone was expecting a lot
more from him. He has the tools, but he doesn't seem to be
applying himself the way he should. He has a lot of growing up
to do....

The Pirates' Aramis Ramirez is maturing fast. He's learning to
hit breaking balls and is improving defensively. He has good
hands, and his range is getting better. Someday he'll be
considered a first-class third baseman....

Free-agent-to-be Roger Cedeno wants a four-year, $25 million
contract from the Tigers? Come on. He'll help some team in the
leadoff spot, but Cedeno has had a very inconsistent career.
Plus he's only an adequate outfielder, using his speed to make
up for the bad jumps he gets on a lot of balls....

Scott Spiezio has given the Angels a nice little spark. I think
he's the type of player who doesn't do well playing just a
couple of times a week. Once he started playing every day at
first, he began to hit. He has had some big home runs for them.

Head Masters

There are special moments in a player's career, such as when he
gets his first major league hit or pitches his 100th victory--or
is the honoree in a bobblehead-doll giveaway. Rangers catcher
Ivan Rodriguez last Friday became the 34th current major leaguer
to have his ceramic likeness handed out this season, and he went
2 for 3 with a double and an RBI against the Red Sox as 25,000
bobblehead Pudges nodded their approval in the stands. Not a bad
performance, but not enough to get him into the Bobblehead Hall
of Fame. Here are the players who have done the most this year
to turn heads in front of their bobblegangers.

PLAYER, TEAM GIVEAWAY PERFORMANCE

Jim Thome, INDIANS April 21 Snapped 3-for-25 slump with
game-winning, 11th-inning homer
Sammy Sosa, CUBS May 5 Went 3 for 5 with a homer and four
RBIs in 20-1 win over Dodgers
Cliff Floyd, MARLINS July 21 Had two homers and four RBIs
in 8-4 loss to Reds
Ichiro Suzuki,
MARINERS July 28 Had three hits, two RBIs and a
stolen base in win over Twins
Randy Johnson,
DIAMONDBACKS Aug. 3 Allowed two hits, struck out eight
over seven innings in defeat of Mets
[BOX]

in the Box

EXPOS 6, REDS 4 Aug. 24

There are two types of errors--physical and mental--and Reds
catcher Jason LaRue made both, giving Montreal a victory. In the
first inning the Expos took a 1-0 lead on a pitch that should
have retired the side: Orlando Cabrera swung and missed for
strike three, but the ball skittered past LaRue for a passed ball
that allowed Cabrera to take first base and Jose Vidro to score
from third. Another passed ball by LaRue, in the seventh inning,
advanced the two base runners who would eventually score the
winning run and an insurance run.

LaRue's worst mistake, however, came in the sixth. With the bases
loaded and none out, Montreal's Michael Barrett chopped a
grounder to third baseman Juan Castro, who stepped on third for a
force-out and then fired home in time for an apparent double
play. LaRue, however, stepped on the plate instead of tagging the
runner--forgetting that Castro had eliminated the force at home
when he stepped on third. LaRue was not charged with an error on
the play, because a double play can't be assumed, but the run the
Expos scored on LaRue's mental gaffe tied the game 4-4.

"As soon as the ball was hit, I was thinking double play to
first," LaRue said. "Juan tagged the bag, and it slipped my
mind."