Inside Baseball

June 09, 2002

Batting Practice
Pitchers still can't solve the riddle of how to get Seattle's
Ichiro Suzuki out

Conventional wisdom in baseball says every hitter has a weakness
that a pitcher can exploit. Give advance scouts enough time, and
they'll ferret out that hole in a player's swing, which explains
why rookies who burst on the scene one year so often fall on
their faces the next. But the performance of Mariners
rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki over the first two months of the
season is enough to send a shiver up the spine of every pitcher
he faces: With a year of major league experience under his belt,
the 2001 American League MVP is even more dangerous this time
around. "He came into the league and tore it up, and no one has
figured out how to pitch him," says teammate Mark McLemore. "It's
like he's figuring them out."

At week's end Ichiro was on track for another batting title,
leading the majors with a .375 average and hitting .523 with
runners in scoring position. He has also addressed the one knock
against him--that he drew few walks and thus didn't get on base as
much as he should. After walking just 30 times last season, he
had already drawn 27 this year and was leading the American
League with a .446 on-base percentage. Clearly Ichiro remains as
much of a mystery to opponents as he was the day he arrived. "The
holes he has are small holes," says Orioles manager Mike
Hargrove. "He doesn't have one tremendous weakness."

Most teams try to pound Ichiro inside, hoping to back him off the
plate and at least make him uncomfortable enough that he can't
settle in and use his exceptional hand-eye coordination to punch
the ball virtually anywhere he wants. That strategy apparently
doesn't work. What's more, Ichiro can make something happen even
when he does get fooled. With his blazing speed from home to
first (he's been timed at 3.7 seconds), he often beats out weak
grounders for hits. Ichiro leads the majors in infield hits this
season with 29, including three on Sunday in Seattle's 11-8
victory over the Orioles.

Nor is trying to pitch around Ichiro the answer. He's an
excellent bad-ball hitter who can make solid contact with pitches
well out of the strike zone. Sometimes the opposing team simply
gives up: Through Sunday, Ichiro had a league-high 11 intentional
walks. So dominant has he been that manager Lou Piniella moved
him to third in the batting order for Sunday's game. "We're going
to take a look at it, and if I like what I see, it'll stay," says
Piniella. "Now at least, if they walk him, we'll have the meat of
the order up."

Floundering Phillies
Time to Get Rolen?

In general manager Ed Wade's perfect world his Phillies would be
leading the NL East, and third baseman Scott Rolen--who plans to
test free agency after this season--would be hitting over .300 and
driving in runs at will. Attention would be focused on a playoff
run rather than on Rolen's uncertain future.

Alas, the world is flawed, and so are the Phils, who at week's
end were 23-32, seven games behind the division-leading Braves.
As May ended, Rolen's average had sunk to .240, he had driven in
just five runs all month, and he was being booed at Veterans
Stadium. Last Saturday manager Larry Bowa tried to light a spark
by moving rightfielder Bobby Abreu to center (benching Doug
Glanville), starting the recently acquired Jeremy Giambi in right
and bumping Rolen up from the heart of the order to second. Early
returns were positive: Rolen homered twice and drove in five runs
in an 8-4 win over the Expos that night. On Sunday he had a
single and two walks and scored twice in an 18-3 win.

Pressure for bigger changes will build if the team doesn't soon
get into the division race. The Phillies have two blue-chippers
in Triple A: outfielder Marlon Byrd, 24, who had seven home runs
and 10 stolen bases at week's end, and righthanded starter Brett
Myers, 21, who was 4-4 with a 3.62 ERA. Despite pleas from the
fans and the media to bring up the prospects, Wade wants to give
them a full year at Triple A.

Then there's the Rolen situation, which has become even more
tense recently. "Mentally, I'm struggling right now," he said, an
unusually candid admission for Rolen.

With little chance of re-signing Rolen, Wade might be forced into
a trade. Rolen's recent struggles would do little to dampen
interest. "I don't think his skills have diminished," says one NL
scout. "I'd still love to have Scott Rolen on my team."

Since spring training Wade has maintained that he has no plans to
deal Rolen, but last weekend he left himself a little wiggle
room. "I've said we're fully prepared to play out the season with
Scott," the G.M. said before Rolen's two-homer outburst on
Saturday. "I never said we're not going to trade him."

Depressed Attendance
Staying Away In Droves

When attendance across the majors was down slightly early in the
season, baseball officials had plenty of excuses--poor weather, a
slumping economy, lack of marquee matchups. Nothing to worry
about, they said. It's too early to jump to conclusions.

It's time to worry. The weather has turned warm and most
traditional rivals have played at least two series, but through
Sunday attendance had dropped 6% compared with last year's.
Worse, 20 of the 30 teams were behind last year's pace. The
Orioles, averaging 32,161, were on track to pull fewer than three
million fans for the first time since Camden Yards opened in
1992. The Indians, among baseball's top-drawing clubs since '94,
are down 22% at the gate. The Reds, despite a surprising run atop
the NL Central, have seen a 12% drop. Hardest hit have been
commissioner Bud Selig's own Brewers, who drew an average of
23,401 to their first 29 home dates--a 30% decline just one year
after Miller Park opened.

A slight drop this year was to be expected because for the first
time since 1996 there were no new ballparks, the novelty of which
inflated the overall numbers. Still, the extent to which fans are
staying away is troubling: Does anyone think the prospect of a
work stoppage will have them flocking to the parks?

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO With his blazing speed out of the box, Ichiro leads the majors in infield hits. COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS Hinske adds power to the Toronto lineup. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Rolen has been moved up to second in the batting order in an effort to jolt him out of his slump.

in the Box

MARLINS 9, METS 7
June 1

Florida centerfielder Preston Wilson had yet to go yard in 24
home dates this season and was wondering if he'd ever hit one out
at home again. He should have figured he'd break out against the
Mets, against whom he had had two multihomer games since they
traded him to the Marlins in the Mike Piazza deal in 1998. Sure
enough, Wilson cleared the fence twice and drove in three runs in
a wild victory. Since the trade, the stepson of Mets first base
coach Mookie Wilson has hit 14 homers and driven in 38 runs
against New York, his best numbers versus any opponent.

Who Needs Hype?

Preseason Rookie of the Year forecasts should be treated like
your brother-in-law's stock tips: Wait and see. Three first-year
players expected to make big splashes this season have struggled,
while several who weren't on many It lists two months ago are
thriving. With one third of the season in the books, here's a
rundown of rookie surprises (statistics through Sunday).

FLAMEOUTS

Sean Burroughs, 3B, Padres. Batting .223 with one homer and
seven RBIs when benched on May 27; went on DL with torn rotator
cuff three days later.

Hank Blalock, 3B, Rangers. Youngest player (21) in majors on
Opening Day was demoted to minors on May 12 with .200 average
and just six RBIs.

Carlos Pena, 1B, A's. American League's Rookie of the Month for
April saw his average drop to .218, then was sent to minors on
May 21.

ON FIRE

Austin Kearns, OF, Reds. Recalled on April 17 after Ken Griffey
Jr. went down, he's hitting .315 with seven homers and 24 RBIs.

Eric Hinske, 3B, Blue Jays. Rare bright spot in another lost
season in Toronto, with nine home runs, 32 RBIs.

Bobby Kielty, OF/1B, Twins. Second among all rookies with .306
average, while filling in ably at first base and outfield for
injury-riddled club.

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)