Inside Baseball

April 28, 2002

Pitching In
A surprisingly sharp rotation has meant everything to the
otherwise ragged Mets

Wherever he goes and whatever he does these days, Mets lefthander
Shawn Estes has his little black book by his side. Like that
other master of cool, Arthur Fonzarelli, Estes keeps his pad
chock-full of names and numbers. Unlike Fonzie's, it has nothing
to do with landing the honeys.

Since Opening Day the Mets' five starters--Estes, lefty Al Leiter
and righthanders Pedro Astacio, Jeff D'Amico and Steve
Trachsel--have been playing a private game of Who's the Man? After
every start by one of the five, Estes goes to his book (which is,
for the record, little and black) and enters numbers: One point
is awarded for a win, one for seven or more innings pitched, and
one for each hit, sacrifice bunt, RBI and run scored by the
starter. After each of the five pitchers has made five starts,
points will also be awarded for most strikeouts and fewest walks
allowed during the marking period. Estes will then tally the
numbers and announce the results. The loser buys the other four
an expensive dinner. Then the calculations start over for another
five turns through the rotation.

"It's a good way to bond, and it keeps things a little
competitive between us," says Estes, who was acquired from the
Giants in the off-season. "Unfortunately, I'm getting my butt
kicked."

That Estes, who had thrown well despite an 0-2 record and 5.09
ERA through Sunday, had been the team's least effective starter
speaks well for a staff that, to the surprise of many, had
emerged as one of baseball's best. Estes and his four colleagues
ranked second in the league with a 2.51 ERA and fifth with 90
strikeouts. Most important, as the team's highly touted offense
continued to struggle (the Mets' .237 average ranked 15th in the
league) and its Gold Glove-laced defense played porously (a
major-league-high 26 errors), the Mets' rotation was the primary
reason New York was 10-9 and only a game out of first place in
the National League East.

"We heard people questioning our rotation, but I think the guys
in here knew the truth," says first baseman Mo Vaughn, who was
supposed to help rejuvenate the offense but had missed 14 games
with a fractured right hand. "Everyone talks about hot young
arms, but to get to the World Series, you need veteran pitchers
with smarts and experience. Most teams are lucky to have two,
maybe three. We have five."

While the Mets knew that Leiter (2-0, major-league-best 0.38
ERA), the team's ace since 1998, was a lock for double-digit wins
and that Estes and Trachsel (1-3, 2.42 ERA) had been productive
if inconsistent inning eaters throughout their careers, manager
Bobby Valentine could not have foreseen the early-season
dominance of Astacio (3-1, 2.89 ERA) and D'Amico (1-1, 1.71 ERA),
who had battled injuries throughout his career.

Last year Astacio, 32, who pitched for the Rockies and the
Astros, missed the final five weeks with a partially torn labrum
in his right shoulder. Instead of undergoing surgery, he decided
to rest. The Mets took a chance and signed him to a one-year, $5
million free-agent deal. On Sunday he had his first rough outing
of the season a 6-3 loss to the Expos in which he gave up four
runs and eight hits in five innings. "The guy's just a hard-nosed
competitor," says Mets pitching coach Charlie Hough. "Because he
pitched in the altitude of Colorado for much of his career, some
thought he wasn't this good. But he's a tough guy to face."

So is D'Amico, a throw-in when the Mets sent Glendon Rusch and
Lenny Harris to the Brewers and Todd Zeile and Benny Agbayani to
the Rockies in a three-way swap for rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz.
Two seasons ago, when D'Amico went 12-7 and battled for the
league's ERA title (his 2.66 ranked third), the Brewers
desperately tried to promote the club's young ace as the next big
thing. Last year, however, a compressed nerve in D'Amico's right
arm limited him to 10 starts. It was yet another run of
frustration for the 6'7", 250-pound finesse pitcher who owns one
of the game's best curves but has missed 2 1/2 seasons with
injuries.

When he learned of the trade to New York, the soft-spoken D'Amico
was taken aback. Then, once he thought about joining a perennial
playoff contender, the idea of a fresh start sounded appealing.
"It's nice to be somewhere where I don't have a track record," he
says. "I'm just going out, pitching and finding ways to compete.
What more can I ask for?"

A free meal, perhaps.

Expos Backstop Blossoms
Barrett's Hitting? Fuhgeddaboutit

It took him back-to-back blah seasons, but Expos catcher Michael
Barrett has finally figured out that the secret to success as a
major league hitter is to stay focused--on your fielding. "Now all
I do is worry about catching," he says. "My Number 1 goal is to
be the best catcher in the league, to take care of my pitcher and
make as few mistakes behind the plate as possible."

According to the 25-year-old Barrett, such glove-centric thinking
equals automatic offense. Who's to argue? After hitting .214 in
2000 and .250 last season, Barrett is surely one of the National
League's early surprises. Through Sunday he was batting .404,
with 17 RBIs. "Everyone always knew he could hit," says Mets
reliever Scott Strickland, who played with Barrett on the Expos
and remembers his .294 average in 134 major league games before
2000. "I think his own preoccupations worked against him."

Barrett would agree. When he arrived at the Expos' spring
training camp two seasons ago, then manager Felipe Alou named
Barrett (who had split time between catcher and the infield as a
rookie in '99) the starting third baseman. Instead of feeding off
Alou's high opinion of him, Barrett looked around at the other
regulars at that position--and promply freaked.

"In the NL East alone there was Mike Lowell, Scott Rolen, Robin
Ventura and Chipper Jones," he says, shaking his head. "I started
thinking of myself as a slugger like those guys. It was an
identity crisis." He was equally shaky afield, committing seven
errors by mid-April before returning to catcher. Last year he
battled to regain his confidence. "When you're that bad," he
says, "it takes time to find your game again."

Last off-season Barrett lifted weights four days a week and spent
the other three hitting in the cage, running and throwing. He
reported to camp in the best physical condition of his life and
has been smoking balls into Olympic Stadium's leftfield gap. "I
no longer feel like I have to swing extra hard to hit the ball,"
he says. "In fact, I no longer worry about hitting the ball at
all. I just play."

Kenny Lofton's Resurgence
Well-healed If Not Well-heeled

When six-time All-Star centerfielder Kenny Lofton became a free
agent at the end of last season, his old team, the Indians, was
beginning a budget-cutting youth movement, and the big-market
clubs were either set in center or spending on other needs. Only
the White Sox showed any interest, signing Lofton to a puny
one-year, $1.03 million contract with $375,000 in performance
bonuses. It was a hurtful message: The belief in baseball was
that Lofton, at 34, was through.

"I don't mind having to prove people wrong," he says. "I know
what I can still do."

Through the first three weeks of the season Lofton had done a
lot. He was among the major leagues' hottest players, batting
.403 (third best in the American League) and leading the league
with 26 runs and 11 stolen bases while playing a nifty
centerfield. All that had helped Chicago win 10 of its last 12
games, including Sunday's 11-8 victory over the Tigers, and stay
a half game behind the Twins in the AL Central. Lofton credited
his scorching start to one simple but elusive factor: good
health.

Last year he went on the disabled list for the third straight
season, missing 14 games in May with a strained left oblique
muscle. He was also held out of nine games in April with a
strained right calf. Worse, Lofton says, he never fully recovered
from December 1999 surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his
left shoulder, which he blames for his disappointing production
in the past two seasons. In 2000 Lofton hit a career-low .278,
then dropped to .261 last year. This winter Lofton went on a yoga
and Pilates program, rededicating himself to fitness. "I did a
lot of different things this off-season," he says. "One problem
with the shoulder was the fear factor. I was timid. Now my
shoulder is as good as ever, and I go headfirst on slides again."

"He continues to surpass my expectations," says Chicago manager
Jerry Manuel. "He's playing with confidence, emotion and
intensity. He gives us a swagger we didn't have, and the other
guys are feeding off of it."

Although he tries to feign indifference to the Indians, with whom
he spent nine of his last 10 seasons, Lofton admits that few
things would be sweeter than knocking his old club off their
longtime AL Central perch. When new Tribe general manager Mark
Shapiro decided to let his centerfielder go--along with
rightfielder Juan Gonzalez, second baseman Roberto Alomar and
leftfielder Marty Cordova--Lofton was angry. Now it's just a
matter of getting even. In Chicago's three-game home sweep of
Cleveland last week, Lofton went 6 for 14 with six runs.

"The people who started [the Cleveland dynasty] didn't finish,"
he says of the organization's revamped front office. "The new
people don't have the same understanding of what we went through
in those early days. They're oblivious to that."

But presumably they're well aware of what Lofton's doing now.

Meanwhile, Back in Cleveland
Lofton's Bad Rap

Though the White Sox' Kenny Lofton is tearing it up for the
Indians' divisional rivals, his former teammates say they are
happy to have him out of boom-box range.

During much of his tenure with the Tribe, Lofton was the team's
self-appointed, unofficial deejay, usually controlling the
clubhouse stereo system and making sure that hip-hop or R&B was
playing at ear-blasting decibels.

"Kenny would put a lot of that crap on, and a lot of guys didn't
want it," says Cleveland reliever Paul Shuey. "This year we've
got 25 guys trying to reach the same goal every day, instead of
worrying what music they're going to play. There's not as much
'Me, me, me' this year. It's a much different atmosphere than in
the past, a much better atmosphere."

The Indians have reached a simple solution on what music to play
in the post-Lofton era: none.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Starters (from left) Trachsel, Estes, Astacio, Leiter and D'Amico have a combined 2.51 ERA, second best in the National League. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS BERNACCHI/SPORTSPICS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: M. SPENCER GREEN/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES Leading the league in runs and steals, the injury-free Lofton helped the White Sox win 12 of their first 18.

in the Box

BLUE JAYS 5, YANKEES 4
April 20

If the Yankees finish the season one game short of making the
playoffs, Bronx Bombers fans can look back in frustration at last
Saturday's game. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the
score tied at 4, Toronto reliever Dan Plesac struck out Jason
Giambi with the bases loaded.

However, in a season marked by surprisingly inconsistent play,
the top of the eighth stands as the Yankees' fatal frame. With
one out and Blue Jays runners Jose Cruz Jr. on first base and
Carlos Delgado on third, Vernon Wells rapped a grounder that was
scooped up by first baseman Nick Johnson. Johnson stepped on
first for the putout and then, instead of looking toward third,
trapped Cruz in a rundown. While Cruz bounded between first and
second, Delgado ran home with what would be Toronto's key fourth
run. If Delgado doesn't score, Giambi's at bat never becomes an
at bat at all.

"I should have thrown home," a dejected Johnson said after the
game.

Don't take it so hard, rook. They'll only remember the big whiff.

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)