Inside Baseball

April 07, 2002

Grand Opening
Maturing Indian Bartolo Colon got high marks for his low pitch
count in the lid lifter

by Phil Taylor

Bartolo Colon was doing crunches on the floor of the visitors'
clubhouse at Edison International Field on Sunday night, which
was an unexpected sight for at least two reasons: Colon, the
Indians' hard-throwing righthander, has an ample midsection that
suggests the only crunches he's familiar with are made by
Nestle, and he was doing the exercises only 20 minutes after
ushering in the 2002 season with a five-hit shutout of the
Angels. Cleveland third baseman Travis Fryman, who homered in
the Tribe's 6-0 win, watched Colon pump away. "Just look at
him," Fryman said. "Ever since spring training started, he's
been working more diligently than I've ever seen him."

Maybe Colon was just trying to work off excess energy after
dispatching Anaheim with a mere 98 pitches, a total that often
represents just a few innings' work for him. His 3,650 pitches
last season were the most thrown by any pitcher in the American
League, bolstering his reputation as an abundantly talented but
inconsistent pitcher who causes unnecessary work for himself with
his lapses in concentration.

For Cleveland, Colon's performance on Sunday was a sign that he
might be ready to become the ace it will need to help offset the
drop in offensive production it's likely to see now that two of
its heavy hitters from a year ago, Roberto Alomar and Juan
Gonzalez, are gone. Colon was overpowering when he needed to
be--he was still throwing in the mid-90s in the ninth inning--but,
more important, he was efficient, with five strikeouts, two walks
and only one inning in which he faced more than four batters.

Colon, a native of the Dominican Republic, has a formidable
fastball that helped him strike out 201 hitters in 222 1/3
innings last year, but he has often relied on it to a fault.
Against the Mariners two years ago he threw 60 pitches in one
inning, all but one of them fastballs. But he spent the past
off-season and spring training working on his curveball and
slider, with the goal of getting outs earlier in the count by
inducing hitters to put those deliveries into play. "The
off-speed pitches are important for me," he said through an
interpreter, bullpen coach Luis Isaac. "They could mean five or
six fewer pitches every inning, and that's a big difference."

The Angels had a runner on second with one out in the eighth
when Colon used his head as much as his arm to get out of
trouble. Instead of trying to blow away Darin Erstad and Tim
Salmon with heat, he got Erstad to bounce to first on a
second-pitch curve and then set up Salmon with two sliders for
strikes before fanning him on a 94-mph fastball.

That's the kind of intelligent approach the Indians have been
waiting for Colon to adopt since his rookie year, in 1997. "When
a young pitcher throws a game like that, it teaches him more
about how to pitch than words from a manager or pitching coach
could ever teach him," Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel said
after the game. "He sent a message tonight, but he learned a lot
too."

It turns out that Colon isn't as young a pitcher as the Indians
once thought he was. He's one of several Latin American players
whose listed ages were discovered to be inaccurate when their
birth certificates were more closely checked this year. Colon,
who was thought to be 26, is 28. But the Indians aren't concerned
about that. He may have aged two years overnight, but if opening
night was any indication, Cleveland will find his new maturity
most welcome.

Short, Third to Rookies
The Astros' Green Infield

Morgan Ensberg's sandy locks, shorn in a long-on-top,
short-on-the-sides surfer coif that might as well be dreadlocks
in the close-cropped baseball world, were a prime target of
abuse in the Astros' clubhouse this spring. "I've never gotten
so much attention for my hair," says the rookie Ensberg, the
Astros' starting third baseman, who grew up in Southern
California and stands third on USC's career home run list,
behind Mark McGwire and Geoff Jenkins. "Back in L.A., I look
like a pretty conservative guy."

Style aside, Ensberg, 26, is part of a radical move by Houston,
which in the final week of camp awarded its shortstop job to Adam
Everett, 25, which means that rookies will be rubbing shoulders
on the left side of the Astros' infield. That's a gamble for a
club that expects to contend for the National League Central
title. The last team to make the postseason with two full-time
rookie infielders? Try the 1947 Dodgers, who had Jackie Robinson
at first and Spider Jorgensen at third.

"It's our X factor," says Houston general manager Gerry
Hunsicker, who's also counting on a rotation that includes three
starters 25 or younger. "We're trying to beat the odds."

At least Ensberg and Everett have as much minor league experience
as a top-level rookie is likely to get these days. Everett,
acquired from the Red Sox for Carl Everett (no relation) in 1999,
started for the Triple A New Orleans Zephyrs for the past two
seasons and cemented his reputation as a stellar defensive
player. Ensberg, the Astros' ninth-round draft pick in '98, spent
a full season at each level of Houston's system; at New Orleans
last year he hit .310 and had 23 homers despite having missed
seven weeks with a broken bone in his left hand.

"We've been watching them for a while," says Hunsicker. "We felt
the time is now to find out what they can do." To that end
Hunsicker dealt Ensberg's main competition at third, incumbent
Chris Truby, to the Expos on March 12 even though Ensberg
started the spring 1 for 15. (He finished with a .253 average,
four homers and 15 RBIs.) Everett beat out last year's regular
shortstop, Julio Lugo, thanks to a flashy glove and improvement
at the plate. A career .256 hitter in the minors, he batted .308
this spring and struck out just five times in 58 plate
appearances.

Not that the power-laden Astros need a ton of offense from
Everett. "All I want him worrying about is making plays," says
veteran second baseman Craig Biggio. "I told him I'd take care
of everything else." --Stephen Cannella

On Deck
Bad Pad for Vlad
April 8, 10-11, Expos at Marlins

Until two months ago Florida manager Jeff Torborg was the
skipper in Montreal, so if anyone should know how to pitch to
Expos batters, he should. However, he would be well advised to
follow the Marlins' old book on Montreal slugger Vladimir
Guerrero. Guerrero's 18 career strikeouts (in 105 at bats) at
Pro Player Stadium are his second most at any road ballpark (he
has whiffed 24 times at Atlanta's Turner Field), and his .306
on-base percentage there is his lowest at any current park where
he has had at least 50 at bats. --S.C.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO With newfound confidence in his off-speed pitches, Colon delivered a 98-pitch shutout of the Angels. COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES The Astros will rely on rookies Ensberg (left) and Everett to anchor the left side of their infield.

Off on the Wrong Foot

The Athletics had a losing record in each of the last two Aprils
yet won the American League West in 2000 and a wild-card berth
last year. While that might inspire teams that stumble out of
the gate this year, they should know that of the 56 playoff
teams since 1995 (the first year of the eight-team format), only
the eight listed below had losing records in their first months.
The chances of rebounding to a winning season are only slightly
better: Of the 96 teams that have finished above .500 since '95,
only 20 (21%) had a losing first month. No first-month loser has
won the World Series. --S.C.

TEAM APRIL RECORD FINAL RECORD PLAYOFF RESULT

2001 A's 8-17 102-60 Lost Division Series
2001 Braves 12-14 88-74 Lost Championship Series
2000 A's 12-13 91-70 Lost Division Series
2000 Giants 10-13 97-65 Lost Division Series
1997 Indians 12-13 86-75 Lost World Series
1996 Cardinals 12-15 88-74 Lost Championship Series
1995 Yankees 13-17* 79-65 Lost Division Series
1995 Dodgers 14-19* 78-66 Lost Division Series

*RECORD THROUGH MAY 31, DUE TO LATE START OF SEASON

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)