Inside Baseball

Sept. 02, 2002
Sept. 02, 2002

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Sept. 2, 2002

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Inside Baseball

Keeping Up with The Jones
The Twins are following their leadoff man, Jacque Jones, who's
been a hit at the top

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 2002 issue

During spring training Twins utilityman Denny Hocking informed
leftfielder Jacque Jones, the team's newly minted leadoff hitter,
that he was going to keep track of how often Jones started a game
by getting on base. "I told him it should be around 50 percent,"
Hocking says. "I was just trying to prevent him from wasting at

The 27-year-old Jones hasn't matched that goal--he had reached
base 38 times in 111 first-inning leadoff plate appearances
(34.2%) through Sunday--but he has certainly energized
Minnesota's offense. In his first trip to the plate on Opening
Day, the lefthanded-hitting Jones smacked the second pitch he
saw for a home run against the Royals. Through Sunday he had hit
22 more, eight of which had also led off a game. (Brady Anderson
holds the record for single-season first-inning leadoff homers,
with 12 in 1996.) Jones doesn't usually try to hit homers, but
he did on that first one. "I thought that would be a good way to
start the season," he says. "Other than that, they've just

Not that you can tell by watching him hit: The ferocious cuts
Jones takes are more appropriate for a beer leaguer than a major
league leadoff man. He led the Twins in runs (85), was tied with
shortstop Cristian Guzman for the team lead in hits (145) and
was batting .293 at week's end. But Jones had a mere 33 walks,
fewer than any other regular American League leadoff hitter
except the Yankees' Alfonso Soriano, who had just 19. Jones has
other similarities to Soriano--good and bad. He had 73 RBIs to
Soriano's 78, and both could threaten the big league record for
RBIs by a leadoff hitter (100, by the Angels' Darin Erstad in
2000). Jones also strikes out almost as much as Soriano. Jones
had 107 whiffs, eighth most in the American League, while
Soriano had 127, second most in the AL.

Jones's free-swinging tendencies are the reason he failed in his
previous trial in the leadoff spot, as a rookie in 1999. He spent
most of the last two seasons racking up strikeouts and extra-base
hits in the bottom third of the Twins' order and, more often than
not, sitting on the bench against lefthanded starters.

In an effort to become a more selective hitter, Jones worked out
during the off-season in San Diego with future Hall of Famer Tony
Gwynn. In those sessions, and in occasional follow-up phone
calls, Gwynn stressed the importance of having a plan at the
plate and not being afraid to work deep into the count.

That's sound advice, but when Twins manager Ron Gardenhire moved
Jones back into the leadoff spot during spring training, he told
Jones not to change his basic approach. "I told him, good or bad,
we're going to put you up there and let you hack," says

Like nearly everything else in the Twins' magical season--they
were leading the AL Central by 16 games at week's end and,
barring a long strike, are a lock for their first postseason
appearance since 1991--Gardenhire's move has been a success.
Jones still must improve his hitting against lefthanders,
though; he had a .193 average in 119 at bats through Sunday.

All-Star centerfielder Torii Hunter gets most of the attention on
the Twins, but Jones is coming on. He not only has made great
strides at the plate, but he also may be Hunter's equal in the
outfield. "It's like having two centerfielders out there," says
Gardenhire. "They're fighting over balls in the gap that fall in
against most teams."

A Cure for Coors
Jennings Excels In Thin Air

Before last season the Rockies signed veteran free-agent
starters Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to deals worth a total of
$172 million. Since then Hampton and Neagle combined were 37-42
through Sunday, and their contracts have become albatrosses for
a team trying to rebuild. But for the bargain price of $206,000,
just over the major league minimum, Colorado may finally have
found an ace. After beating the Mets last Friday, rookie
righthander Jason Jennings was 15-5 with a 4.17 ERA. Jennings
already had the second-highest win total in Rockies history and
was the first National League rookie to win 15 games since Tom
Browning won 20 for Cincinnati in 1985. "He's the real deal,"
says one NL advance scout.

Surprisingly, Jennings has pitched well at Coors Field, where he
was 9-1 with a 4.83 ERA. (No previous Colorado starter had ever
won more than eight games at home in a season.) Using a hard
sinker and a good changeup, Jennings doesn't walk many (just 22
in 7223 innings at Coors) and keeps the ball in the park (10
homers allowed at home). "That's his recipe for winning: throwing
strikes, keeping the ball down and getting a lot of ground-ball
outs," says manager Clint Hurdle.

Jennings also has what may be the most important ingredient for
success at Coors: courage. Unlike many starters, young or old,
he hasn't been fazed by working in one of the inner circles of
pitching hell. "He's not afraid to challenge hitters, and he has
great mound presence for a young kid," says the scout. "He's
been a breath of fresh air for Colorado."

Royals' Byrd Struggles
Empty Nest Syndrome

These are the dog days of summer, when out-of-contention teams
slog through the schedule and even some of the most devoted fans
are forced to abandon their heroes. Royals righthander Paul
Byrd, 31, found that out last week when the Byrd's Nest broke
up. The Nest was a group of recent high school graduates who sat
in the upper deck of Kauffman Stadium for Byrd's starts this
year. They wore feathers and beaks and saluted Byrd by flapping
their arms as he walked off the mound after every inning; he
returned the gesture by flapping back after the game ended. When
several Nesters showed up for a Byrd start in Detroit in July,
the righthander took them to a restaurant for dinner after the
game. "The kids all had socks pulled up to their knees, wearing
beaks and feathers," says Byrd. "They were like, 'Uh, Mr. Byrd,
I think we broke the dress code.'"

Alas, most of the fan club's members have left for college in the
last few weeks. As a parting gift the group presented Byrd with a
signed banner proclaiming him the GREATEST PITCHER IN BASEBALL.
"I almost cried when they did that," says Byrd.

The empty nest couldn't have come at a worse time for Byrd,
whose team was 53-78 at week's end. Fully recovered at last from
shoulder surgery in 2000, Byrd started 14-7 this season but
hadn't won in five August starts through Sunday. "It makes it
hard," Byrd says of the Nest's absence. "When you're not in
first place, things like that make it fun around here."

To read Stephen Cannella's weekly Touching Base column, go to


The Future

A minor league standout you'll be hearing about soon

Though it's been a lost season for the Phillies, who could have
reached into their farm system to inject some energy into a
lifeless team, they instead held firm to their decision to give
prized outfield prospect Marlon Byrd a full year in Triple A. At
week's end their patience appeared to have paid off. Byrd, who
turns 25 on Aug. 30, was hitting .294 with 12 home runs, 59
RBIs, 37 doubles and 14 stolen bases for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
If there isn't a strike, he'll be called up in September, and
it's a good bet that Byrd will be the Phillies' Opening Day
centerfielder in 2003. Says one NL scout, "He's a five-tool guy
who reminds me of a young Scott Rolen."

Ready for a Vacation

THE POSSIBILITY of a strike threatens to wipe out the stellar
performances of several players and teams. But while the fans and
most of baseball dread the second work stoppage in eight years,
some teams and players might not be heartbroken if the season
grinds to a halt on Friday. (Stats through Sunday.)


Ken Griffey Jr. Despite lifting batting average to .284 last
Reds week, he's had a miserable year and could use
time to heal; a sore left hip flexor is latest
in string of leg injuries that has limited him
to 51 games and seven home runs.
Jose Hernandez The 33-year-old shortstop had struck out 161
Brewers times, putting him on pace for 202. That
would shatter Bobby Bonds's 32-year-old record
of 189.
Devil Rays Hapless club (43-87) was on track to lose 108
games and become first team in 23 years to lose
100 or more two years in a row. Tampa Bay also
has shot to be first AL team with 111 losses
since 1939.
Marlins Having dumped contracts of Cliff Floyd and Ryan
Dempster, they have the worst attendance in
majors (10,257 per game); they can only sink
Mets After a winter overhaul pushed team payroll to
$95 million, including $7.2 million for Jeromy
Burnitz, who had 11 homers and 38 RBIs, club was
in NL East cellar following 12-game losing