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Inside Baseball

May 27, 2002
May 27, 2002

Table of Contents
May 27, 2002

Si Adventure

Inside Baseball

Redeemed Angel
Tim Salmon has broken out of his slump and led Anaheim's reversal
of fortune

This is an article from the May 27, 2002 issue Original Layout

By late April, Tim Salmon's slump had lasted so long--more than
a year--that it was time to make an unorthodox adjustment.
Anaheim hitting coach Mickey Hatcher took the 33-year-old
Salmon, who hit .227 last season, into a batting cage and had
him face a machine delivering nothing but curveballs. Go to the
plate looking for the curve and adjust to the fastball, Hatcher
told him, contradicting the message taught to every young
hitter. "Sitting on the curve slows down his lower half," says
Hatcher. "His hands are so good that he can catch up to the
fastball."

The move appears to be working. Through Sunday, Salmon, who got
off to an 11-for-62 start this season, was hitting .324 with
five home runs and 17 RBIs since April 24. Not coincidentally,
that's the day the fallen Angels began to turn their season
around. Since losing 14 of its first 20 games, Anaheim had
become the hottest team in baseball through Sunday, having won
18 of its last 21 after taking two of three from Chicago last
weekend. Says White Sox manager Jerry Manuel, "They look like
they're fulfilling the potential that everyone talked about."

Much of that potential resides in the pitching staff. The
rotation has flourished with a combination of three solid young
starters--lefthanders Scott Schoeneweis and Jarrod Washburn, and
righty Ramon Ortiz--and veteran righthanders Kevin Appier and
Aaron Sele, who were signed during the off-season. Led by lefty
Dennis Cook and righty Lou Pote (combined 1.62 ERA in 28
appearances), the underrated bullpen had the AL's fourth-lowest
ERA (3.73) at week's end.

Mostly, though, the Angels have scrapped their way back into the
playoff race--through Sunday they were four games behind the
Mariners in the AL West and 3 1/2 in back of the Yankees for the
wild card--with as much subtlety as Chris Matthews interviewing a
Greenpeace activist. During that 18-3 tear Anaheim outscored its
opponents 161-65.

Salmon's hot streak has been his first meaningful contribution to
the offense since 2000, when he hit 34 homers and drove in 97
runs. His surge has been matched by another key member of the
lineup who is coming off a terrible year. Centerfielder Darin
Erstad battled a strained right knee throughout 2001 and spent
much of the year fighting the bad mechanics he developed trying
to ease the pressure on his front leg.

Erstad is healthy now, though he too got off to a slow start this
season. That changed after he sustained a concussion while
chasing a fly ball into the wall against Texas in mid-April and
sat out for a week. Before the injury he was batting .242 with a
.284 on-base percentage. Since his return on April 28 he had hit
safely in 15 of 18 games at week's end and raised his average to
.313. "Now everyone who struggles here is going to bang their
heads against a fence," says manager Mike Scioscia. Hey, for the
surging Angels, no solution is too off the wall.

The Big Hurt: No. 3 No More
Thomas Dropped in Lineup

Catching Frank Thomas's first at bat used to require getting to
the park on time. A fixture in the third spot in the White Sox'
lineup since 1991, the Big Hurt was as much a part of the first
inning as first-pitch fastballs. In fact, on the rare occasions
when manager Jerry Manuel raised the idea of moving the slugger
around in the order, Thomas balked.

Yet there was Thomas last weekend, contentedly batting fifth in a
series against the Angels. Magglio Ordonez, the league's
seventh-ranked hitter through Sunday at .329, had been moved up
from cleanup to Thomas's third spot, and Paul Konerko, ranked
third in the AL with a .341 average, had ascended from fifth to
fourth. "I suggested it to Jerry," says Thomas, who was dropped
in the order on May 11, ending a stretch of 11 years in which he
never started a game batting anywhere other than third or
cleanup.

The lineup shift--and Thomas's acceptance of it--reflect a changed
Thomas. The Big Hurt missed five months last season with a torn
right triceps, and he has been slow to recover the form that
earned him two MVP awards in the early 1990s and made him the
runner-up for that honor in 2000. Through Sunday he was hitting
.272 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs. Those are respectable
numbers, but his batting average and .387 on-base percentage were
well off the .319 and .438 career marks he carried into this
year. He also had struck out 31 times, a pace that would give him
114 whiffs by season's end.

In the past such a slump might have sent Thomas, who turns 34 on
May 27, into a funk. So far this year, though he has continually
tinkered with his mechanics at the plate, he has stayed calm. "I
don't have time to be selfish anymore," he says. "I'm older. It's
time for me to focus on the team."

Besides, the five hole seems to agree with him. Through Sunday he
was hitting .421 with three homers and four doubles in 19 at bats
in that slot. Were the two homers he hit in the White Sox' 10-4
win over Anaheim last Saturday an indication that he has found
his stroke? "I don't want to hear that," Thomas said afterward.
"I'm struggling. I'm going to fight my way back."

Division of Confusion
Topsy-turvy NL Central

A rule of thumb is that the season must be at least two months
old before any meaningful judgments can be made about players,
teams or divisional races. The season will reach that mark next
week, but at least one question will be more difficult to answer
than it was on Opening Day: Who's good and who's not in the
National League Central?

Through Sunday the Reds, who most experts thought would be
buried by now, had the largest lead (four games) of any division
front-runner except Seattle (four games ahead in the American
League West). The lightly regarded Pirates had spent more time
in first place than any Central team except Cincinnati--despite
having scored the fewest runs in the NL. As for the two division
favorites, Houston reached .500 on Saturday for the first time
since April 17, and St. Louis, picked by many to go to the World
Series, started strong but had slipped to 22-21 by week's end.

What gives? In the Cardinals' case injuries have forced them to
use 11 different starting pitchers. The Astros have struggled on
the mound and at the plate. Through Sunday, leadoff hitter Craig
Biggio was batting .221 with a .326 on-base percentage and the
bullpen had the league's second-worst relief ERA (4.80).

Both of those teams showed signs of life last week, and the
Pirates, after a 12-5 start, had fallen back to earth and were
in fourth place. Still, it appears that the division picture may
not clear up until the All-Star break. There is one reassuring
sign of order: The Cubs, cursed by high expectations after
winning 88 games a year ago, were battling Milwaukee for the
league's worst record.

Fogg Rolls into Pittsburgh
Pirates' Rookie Surprise

The Pirates picked up rookie righthander Josh Fogg in a trade
with the White Sox in December, and he has turned out to be the
find of the off-season. Through Sunday, Fogg was 5-1 with a 2.36
ERA and has showed remarkable control.

The deal has worked out well for all involved. Besides Fogg,
Pittsburgh also got reliever Sean Lowe and righthander Kip Wells
in exchange for righty Todd Ritchie. Lowe is a key member of one
of the league's best bullpens, and at week's end Wells was 6-2
and Ritchie had a solid 3.32 ERA. When the swap was made, White
Sox manager Jerry Manuel called Lloyd McClendon, his Pirates
counterpart, and said, "Fogg is the sleeper in the deal."

That's high praise for someone who before this season had made
11 major league appearances, all of them in relief. McClendon
took heat when he picked Fogg over Lowe for the rotation late in
spring training, but Fogg has rewarded his manager's faith. He
has mesmerized hitters with four pitches (fastball, curve,
slider, changeup), all of which he'll throw in any situation.
"He reminds me of Greg Maddux or Doug Drabek," says catcher
Jason Kendall.

The Maddux comparison is inevitable: In addition to pinpoint
command, Fogg has a solid six-foot, 202-pound frame and a
bespectacled visage. Through Sunday he also had one more win and
a lower ERA than Maddux. Says McClendon, "He's been everything
we expected and more."

Here's a Job to Ride The Pine For
Bench Coaches

It's safe to say that Tony Pena's workload increased
significantly last week when he gave up his duties as the
Astros' bench coach for the headaches of the Royals' managing
job. He was the fourth bench coach to slide into a skipper's
seat since the beginning of spring training. (The Red Sox' Grady
Little, the Tigers' Luis Pujols and the Brewers' Jerry Royster
are the others.) All of which leads to the question Little, who
spent the last two seasons sitting next to Indians manager
Charlie Manuel, was once asked by his grandson: What exactly do
bench coaches do?

Bench coaches handle a variety of tasks, including writing out
the lineup card, running the team if the manager gets tossed,
acting as a liaison between the manager and the players, and,
most important, being an adviser, sounding board and confidant
for the manager during games. "So much comes up in a game that
you like to have someone to bounce ideas off," says Mariners
skipper Lou Piniella, who is in his fifth season with John
McLaren as his bench coach.

Some bench coaches are baseball Yodas like the Yankees' Don
Zimmer and the Pirates' Bill Virdon. Others are
managers-in-waiting like Texas's Terry Francona, a former
skipper who's in the wings should the thin ice under manager
Jerry Narron melt away.

The job is an apprenticeship for many bench coaches. "I do it to
learn," says McLaren, 50, "but there are times when Lou will ask
me a question and I'll say, 'You make the big bucks, you make
the call.'"

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL WARNER/AP After a slow start Salmon (center) has sparked the Angels by hitting .324 with 17 RBIs since April 24.COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES Thomas offered to move down in the order, aware that the Big Hurt's bat had been anything but big.COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN

RED SOX 4, MARINERS 1
May 18

John Lennon's Revolution 9--the tuneless dirge that drones
"Number nine, number nine"--should have been blaring in the
visitors' clubhouse before last Saturday's game at Fenway Park.
The Mariners were facing Pedro Martinez, who in nine career
games against them was 9-0 with an 0.91 ERA. Could they break
their streak of futility? Pedro quickly made the answer clear:
nein. In the first inning he struck out the side on nine
pitches, a feat rarer than a no-hitter. Martinez became just the
35th pitcher in major league history to do it.

By the end of the day Martinez had thrown 99 pitches (73 for
strikes) and struck out nine. (Seattle did score on a solo home
run by Ruben Sierra.) In his ninth start of the season, Martinez
put to rest any worries that he's still recovering from a
partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder that sidelined
him for nearly three months last season. He's now 6-0 and
pitching as well as he dresses--that is, to the nines.

The Cubs' Latest Savior?

Though it's not the ideal situation to ease phenom Mark Prior
(above) into their rotation, the reeling Cubs, who were 14-27
through Sunday, had no choice but to call him up. Chicago fans
have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the 21-year-old
righthander (5-2, 2.29 ERA in the minors), who was scheduled to
make his big league debut on Wednesday. "The one thing I've been
trying to avoid is making this kid the savior," said Cubs G.M.
Andy MacPhail. "If he's got to be the white knight who rides in,
we're really asking a lot."