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Inside Baseball

June 24, 2002
June 24, 2002

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June 24, 2002

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When Mo Is Less
The Mets' winter spending spree, which included Mo Vaughn,
hasn't paid off

This is an article from the June 24, 2002 issue Original Layout

The Mets made so many off-season moves to punch up their offense
that at least one of them figured to work. It hasn't happened,
and the club has hovered around .500 for most of the season.
Leftfielder Roger Cedeno, who was signed as a free agent to fill
the leadoff spot, was hitting .242 with a .308 on-base
percentage at week's end. Second baseman Roberto Alomar,
acquired in a trade with Cleveland, was batting .267, 38 points
below his career average. Rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz, who was
picked up in a trade with the Brewers, was hitting .203 and had
no home runs and three RBIs since May 25.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment was first baseman Mo
Vaughn, whose slump had reached Titanic proportions--his average
was sinking fast, and he was taking others down with him. Three
weeks ago the Mets' struggling first baseman, who was hitting
.237 through Sunday, arranged to meet with Mike Easler, his
hitting coach with the Red Sox in 1993 and '94 and currently a
roving minor league instructor for the Reds. Easler and Vaughn
got together in a New York City hotel room to work on the
slugger's swing, a highly unusual move. Easler drew a reprimand
from Cincinnati for tutoring an opposing player, and New York
hitting coach Dave Engle's already tenuous position became more
shaky. Engle was fired on June 10 with the Mets hitting .244
(14th in the league).

The 34-year-old Vaughn had only four home runs and 21 RBIs until
his game-winning, three-run shot against the Yankees on Sunday
night ended a homer drought dating to May 27. Worse, he had
struck out 56 times in 189 at bats.

When they acquired Vaughn from the Angels for righthander Kevin
Appier in December, the Mets believed that Vaughn was healthy
after missing all of last season with a ruptured biceps tendon in
his left arm and that he would approach his 1995 American League
MVP performance (.300, 39 homers, 126 RBIs). Vaughn's comeback
was delayed by a fractured right hand that sidelined him for two
weeks in April, and since then he has often looked lethargic and
lost at the plate. Says Mets infielder John Valentin, Vaughn's
teammate with the Red Sox and in college, "I've never seen him
have a stretch like this. Never."

Scouts say Vaughn's bat speed is slow and that he appears timid
at the plate, often letting hittable pitches go by without
swinging. When Vaughn was in Boston, he was known for using an
inside-out swing to poke pitches in on his hands off the Green
Monster in leftfield. Now that his bat has slowed and his timing
is off, he's lucky to make contact on inside pitches. "I don't
know whether I've been overanalyzing or not," Vaughn says. "It's
a black-and-white situation. You just have to get hits."

Orioles Rookie Rodrigo Lopez
From Tomato Can to All-Star?

Growing up in a suburb of Mexico City, Rodrigo Lopez idolized
lefthander Fernando Valenzuela, the most successful Mexican
pitcher to play in the majors. Lopez may soon have his own loyal
following among Mexican youth. Through Sunday the 26-year-old
rookie righthander was 6-2 for the Orioles with a 2.45 ERA, the
second lowest in the American League. "Lopez and [Diamondbacks
ace Curt] Schilling are the two best pitchers we've seen this
year," says second baseman Carlos Baerga of the Red Sox, whom
Lopez held to four runs in two April wins by the Orioles.

Before this season Lopez's biggest success on the mound had come
with the Culiacan Tomato Growers of the Mexican Pacific League,
for whom he has pitched during the last six off-seasons. Lopez
signed with the Padres in 1995 and spent six unproductive years
in the minor leagues. (He went 0-3 with an 8.76 ERA in a
six-game stint with San Diego in 2000.) After missing part of
last season with a rotator cuff injury and struggling at Triple
A Portland, Lopez was granted free agency. In November the
Orioles took a flier and signed him to a minor league contract.

Lopez then headed home to pitch for the Tomato Growers, going
10-2 and leading his club to the Caribbean World Series title.
Along the way he sharpened his changeup and late-breaking slider
and built up his confidence. "I thought maybe he had one
above-average pitch, but he has three," says Baltimore pitching
coach Mark Wiley.

After using Lopez in the bullpen for a few weeks, the Orioles
put him into the rotation on April 24. By changing speeds and
relying on his good control--he'd walked just 26 in 80-plus
innings--Lopez had held opponents to a .220 average. "If you
want to talk about guys who should be on the All-Star team,"
says Red Sox manager Grady Little, "he's one of the first you
should talk about."

Interleague Quirk
Designated Losers

National League teams won 13 of last Saturday's 14 interleague
games, the first time since interleague play began in 1997 that
one side won more than 11 games on the same day. Until the start
of the weekend series, the two leagues had been virtually even,
with the National League holding a 639-637 edge.

What happened on Saturday? It may be no accident that last
weekend's series included the first full slates of games since
1972 in which every game was played without a designated hitter.
A big complaint about interleague play has been that games in NL
parks deprive AL teams of a dangerous hitter; the DH is an
advantage in AL parks because National League clubs tend to use
that roster spot for an extra, usually light-hitting, position
player.

Alas, the AL had won just 285 of 638 games played at NL parks,
including 17 of 42 this season.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Vaughn's slow bat is one reason that he had struck out 56 times this season.COLOR PHOTO: JERRY WACHTER Lopez, who starred in the Mexican winter league, hasn't lost his touch in Baltimore.

SI's All-Star Ballot

National League leaders in fan voting at each position and our
corresponding choices. Next week: SI's American League ballot.
(Stats through Sunday.)

POSITION VOTE LEADER (AS OF SUNDAY) SI CHOICE

First base Todd Helton, Helton
Rockies (.343, 15 HR, 56 RBIs)
Helton, tied for league lead in RBIs, should have stranglehold
on spot for years to come

Second base Roberto Alomar, Jose Vidro, Expos
Mets (.267, 5, 24) (.335, 7, 47)
Underexposed Vidro leads NL in hits (90) and in batting average
with runners in scoring position (.406)

Third base Scott Rolen, Mike Lowell,
Phillies (.240, 10, 39) Marlins (.331, 9, 48)
In a down year at the position, Lowell has blossomed into one
of league's most dangerous hitters

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, Jose Hernandez,
Phillies (.283, 6, 25) Brewers (.287, 11, 31)
Hernandez above average at the plate and in the field; should
get the start in his home park

Catcher Mike Piazza, Damian Miller,
Mets (.282, 13, 40) Diamondbacks (.284, 8, 30)
What Miller lacks in production, he more than makes up for in
nailing base runners and calling the game

Outfield Barry Bonds, Giants (.356, 22, 43) Bonds
Sammy Sosa, Cubs (.321, 25, 48) Sosa
Vladimir Guerrero, Lance Berkman,
Expos (.318, 16, 50) Astros (.280, 20, 56)
Tough call, but, aside from Bonds and Sosa, Berkman has been
NL's most compelling hitter