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Inside Baseball

Sept. 23, 2002
Sept. 23, 2002

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Sept. 23, 2002

Inside Baseball

Time to Tinker
Having clinched the AL Central, the Twins try to work out
two kinks that could stymie their World Series hopes

This is an article from the Sept. 23, 2002 issue Original Layout

Which pitching duo could play a major role in how far the Twins
go in the postseason? How about former manager Tom Kelly, 52,
who retired after last season but has returned to help scout
potential playoff opponents, and Gary Lucas, 47, pitching coach
for Minnesota's Class A Quad City (Davenport, Iowa) River
Bandits--both of whom are lefthanders and have been throwing
batting practice for Minnesota. At week's end the Twins had lost
a major league-high 28 times when facing a lefthanded starter
(they had won 21 times), and their .245 batting average against
lefties was the fifth worst in the American League.

"[Kelly's] actually pretty good," says first baseman Doug
Mientkiewicz. "You can't open up too quickly on him or he'll cut
you up inside."

Minnesota could afford to spend the last month of the season
addressing its struggles against southpaws as well as other
concerns, because its AL Central lead has been 10 or more games
since July 17. (The Twins wrapped up their first division title
since 1991 by beating the Indians 5-0 on Sunday afternoon.) But
there's still work to be done. Last Friday the club lost 12-5 to
another lefty--a 39-year-old journeyman to boot--as the Indians'
Terry Mulholland got his first win as a starter in more than two
years.

The postseason field will be littered with nasty lefthanders like
Oakland's Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, Anaheim's Jarrod Washburn
and the Yankees' David Wells and Andy Pettitte. "In order to win
a playoff series," says Minnesota utilityman Denny Hocking,
"we're going to have to beat a top-notch lefty somewhere along
the line."

In addition to bringing in old southpaws to pitch BP, first-year
manager Ron Gardenhire has been giving some of his lefthanded
hitters an increased number of at bats against lefties. For
example, at week's end leftfielder Jacque Jones (.324 average
against righthanders, .214 against lefthanders) had been in the
lineup for eight straight Twins games against lefty starters.

Another issue Minnesota has to resolve is its postseason
rotation. In Friday's game lefthander Eric Milton, who has
struggled after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee
last month, was hammered for nine runs in 1 2/3 innings of his
third start since returning from the disabled list. Milton's
slow return to form has muddied plans for a staff that has no
clear-cut ace. "We're trying to figure this out and get
ourselves set up," says Gardenhire. "We're taking the best
people we can to the playoffs. If [Milton] is one of them,
that's great."

Before he was injured, Milton (13-9, 5.14 ERA) probably would
have been the pick to start Game 1 of the Division Series; now
he needs to pitch well in his final three starts just to ready
himself for the playoffs. Gardenhire, who plans to use four
starters, can choose among righthanders Brad Radke (8-4, 4.44
ERA), Rick Reed (15-7, 3.74) and Joe Mays (3-7, 5.56) for Game
1. "We'll go with whoever our best pitcher is," he says.

Lately that's been Radke, who, after missing 2 1/2 months in the
middle of the season with a groin injury, had won four of his
last five starts through Sunday. But Radke has been far more
effective at home (5-1, 3.02) than on the road (3-3, 6.17).
Because the Twins will likely open the playoffs on the road,
Gardenhire could tap the 37-year-old Reed, the only Twins starter
with postseason experience (four starts for the Mets in 1999 and
2000), for the opening-game assignment and save Radke for Game 3
at the Metrodome.

Seattle's Swoon
Even Ichiro Is Battling a Slump

During the Mariners' Sept. 5 charter flight from Seattle to
Kansas City, manager Lou Piniella headed to the back of the plane
to consult with some of his veterans, including Edgar Martinez,
John Olerud, Mike Cameron and Bret Boone. Having just split a
two-game series with the Twins, the Mariners were seven games
behind the AL West-leading A's and 3 1/2 back of the
wild-card-leading Angels, and Piniella told his troops that he
thought the team needed victories in 16 of its 23 remaining games
to make the playoffs.

Seattle won its next three, but through Sunday the Mariners had
lost six of their last seven, including two of three to Oakland
over the weekend, and were eight games out of the wild-card spot.
After winning an American League-record 116 games last season,
Seattle won't make the playoffs this year.

What went wrong? In the second half of the season the offense has
been less robust than day-old espresso. "We've gone from first in
the league in runs scored the first six weeks to [sixth]," says
Piniella. "That basically tells the story."

Clutch hitting has been a seasonlong problem for the Mariners,
who at week's end had left more runners on base (1,117) than any
other team in the league. "If I had to grade the way we've
advanced runners this year, it would be a D," Piniella says.
"With the type of team we have, we have to advance runners to
have any success."

But the most startling drop-off in recent weeks has been in the
leadoff spot. At the All-Star break rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki
was hitting .357 and appeared to be on the way to his second
batting title in two seasons. But through Sunday his postbreak
average was .272, and his on-base percentage over that span
(.326) was more than 100 points lower than his first-half mark.
Since Sept. 1 he had gone a woeful 8 for 47 (.170).

More and more pitchers have been pounding Ichiro with fastballs
inside to keep him from flicking his bat at outside pitches and
poking balls into the outfield. But Ichiro's skid may have more
to do with his swing. Perhaps pressing at the plate, he has been
hitting more fly balls than usual, robbing himself of the chance
to use his speed to beat out ground balls. He has also cut down
severely on his activity on the base paths: After stealing 22
bases in the first half, he had just seven swipes in the second.

"There are a couple things I've noticed," Piniella says. "One is
that we need to rest him more. The other is that the league has
adjusted the way they pitch to him. He's not hitting ground balls
to the shortstop side much anymore. All his grounders now are to
the pull side. And you can't beat out many grounders to the right
side--not even Ichiro."

"Ichiro's gassed," says one AL advance scout. "His swing has
slowed down, and he's bailing out to get to inside pitches, so
he's starting to have trouble with stuff away, too. He's not as
good defensively, either; he's not getting to balls as well as he
did last year. I think he hit the wall."

To read Stephen Cannella's weekly Touching Base column, go to
cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM OLMSCHEID/AP (TOP) Radke has pitched like the Twins' ace at home but has struggled on the road.COLOR PHOTO: GRIESHOP/MLB PHOTOS PujolsCOLOR PHOTO: ALLEN FREDRICKSON/REUTERS (TOP) Like the rest of the Mariners, Ichiro hit the wall in the second half of the season.COLOR PHOTO: JEFF MITCHELL/REUTERS Bellhorn

Reason to Worry
The Twins aren't the only team with concerns entering the
postseason. Here is the biggest question facing each of six
other playoff-bound clubs.

Angels Can righthander Aaron Sele (8-9, 4.91 ERA through
Sunday) return from a rotator-cuff injury to bolster
the rotation?

Athletics With fireballing closer Billy Koch second in the
American League in appearances (75), how much does
he have left?

Braves Can Julio Franco and Matt Franco provide the offense
the lineup needs from the first base slot?

Cardinals If opponents pitch around MVP candidate Albert
Pujols (.312, 115 RBIs), who will pick up the slack?

Diamondbacks The Big Two are 45-10, but will Randy Johnson and
Curt Schilling have to again combine for nine
postseason victories?

Yankees Will Mariano Rivera (1-4, 27 saves) get over his
strained right shoulder and regain his dominating
form?

Who Is This Guy?

Mark Bellhorn, whom the Cubs got from the A's last November in a
trade for infield prospect Adam Morrissey, wasn't supposed to be
Chicago's biggest off-season acquisition. Bellhorn had a career
.198 average and just seven home runs in parts of four seasons
with Oakland, and he made the Cubs' roster in spring training as
little more than a bit player. But when prized prospect Bobby
Hill flopped in a midseason trial at second base, the
28-year-old Bellhorn took over the every-day job and never let go.

Batting mostly in the leadoff spot, he had hit 27 homers through
Sunday, third most on the team behind Sammy Sosa and Fred
McGriff. Against the Brewers on Aug. 29, Bellhorn, a
switch-hitter, became the first NL player to homer from both
sides of the plate in one inning. He'd also been solid
defensively (11 errors) and had started at all four infield
positions.