Inside Baseball

May 11, 2003

Jump-starters

The Mariners grabbed the early lead in the AL West thanks to the
emerging young pitchers in their rotation

Mariners lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes was so immersed in a game
of blackjack last Saturday afternoon in the visitors' clubhouse
at U.S. Cellular Field that he failed to notice the teammate
hovering behind him, tipping off his hand. Standing over Rhodes
was righthander Joel Pineiro, who was revealing Rhodes's cards to
righthanded reliever Julio Mateo by signaling with his fingers.
It wasn't until after a few hands that the 33-year-old Rhodes
finally picked up on the ruse, but given that Pineiro is one of
Seattle's young starters, it figures that he would go unnoticed.

Despite their one-game lead over the A's in the American League
West and a team ERA of 3.35 (second-best in the league) through
Sunday, the Mariners have the most-overlooked rotation in the
league. The creaky club, the third-oldest in the majors and
widely perceived in the off-season to be on the decline, has
received a much-needed injection of life from three young
pitchers in particular--Pineiro, 24; righthander Freddy Garcia,
26; and righthander Gil Meche, 24.

"The way the young guys are pitching makes our rotation as strong
as anyone else's," says 40-year-old designated hitter Edgar
Martinez, comparing his teammates with Oakland's much more
heralded staff. "We have confidence in them. They don't get
intimidated by anyone."

The biggest boost has come from Meche, a soft-talking Louisianan
who grew up idolizing Ron Guidry. Last week he outpitched Roger
Clemens at Yankee Stadium and beat White Sox ace Bartolo Colon in
Chicago, improving to 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA. Meche had a scoreless
streak of 20 1/3 innings before the White Sox scored a run in
the fifth on Sunday. After going 12-8 in 1999 and 2000 combined,
Meche missed the last 2 1/2 seasons because of two shoulder
operations but used the time off to refine his delivery. Now he
has far more consistency in his release, which has rid him of a
tendency to overthrow. "My mechanics are better now than they
ever were," says Meche. "I'm just really comfortable out there
and feel like I can throw strikes whenever I want."

The rest of the rotation--including 40-year-old Jamie Moyer (3-2,
3.82) and 30-year-old Ryan Franklin (2-2, 3.83), who became a
starter late last season--is well-balanced, but Meche, Garcia
(3-3, 3.83) and Piniero (2-2, 3.76) are key to the future success
of the team. In putting together an impressive run of consistency
early in his career, Pineiro quietly became the Mariners' most
effective starter last year (14-7, 3.24). But the horse with the
best track record and the highest expectations is the 6'4",
240-pound Garcia, who is 63-32 in four-plus seasons in the
majors. "This is Freddy's time," says manager Bob Melvin. "He
wants to do something special, and he's on the verge of getting
there. Freddy's set on proving he's a true Number 1 this year."

But Garcia has carried a hefty workload--he's pitched 200-plus
innings three of the last four years--and he lost steam in the
second half of 2002. After starting last season 11-5 with a 3.44
ERA, he went 5-5 with a 5.66 ERA after the All-Star break. Garcia
has his command back this season, and, most encouraging for the
Mariners, his best pitch, the curveball, is again fooling hitters
as it did when he went 18-6 in 2001.

"We believe in all the guys we throw out there," says Melvin.
"They just know how to get the job done."

Adrian Beltre's Struggle

Still Can't Find His Groove

Since being fast-tracked to the majors as a 19-year-old in
1998--he arrived straight from Double A San Antonio--Dodgers
third baseman Adrian Beltre has been plagued by a lack of
discipline and patience at the plate. Most disheartening to Los
Angeles is that Beltre, who was hitting .198 with four home runs,
11 RBIs and 18 strikeouts through Sunday, has shown few signs of
progress in five years despite being given every chance to
succeed.

Of all active players 24 and younger, no one had more at bats
than Beltre's 2,406. This season Beltre didn't draw a walk until
his 41st plate appearance. And Beltre's 3.57 pitches per plate
appearance were his lowest since his rookie season. Dodgers
manager Jim Tracy is becoming increasingly frustrated with Beltre
and sent him a stern message a few weeks ago by benching him four
times in a span of seven games.

"He's been pampered in this organization, and now they're saying,
'It's time,'" says Dodgers outfielder Brian Jordan. "I think he
realizes that now, because he had a frustrating beginning this
year and it has really challenged him."

For the time being it appears L.A. will stick with Beltre, who
can become a free agent after the 2004 season, instead of trying
to trade for another third baseman. "There are a lot of players
in the big leagues who you have to have patience with," says
general manager Dan Evans. "There's no science to when these guys
[snap out of it]. They do it at different stages."

Beltre says that he's not going to make any drastic changes to
his approach at the plate. "Last year I would struggle for a week
and then start to change things," he says. "That would just get
me into a deeper slump, so I would try to go back to another
thing to get me out of it--and that would get me in even deeper."

Read Tom Verducci's Inside Baseball column every week at
si.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES The trio of (clockwise from top left) Pineiro, Garcia and Meche is key to the future of the ancient Mariners. COLOR PHOTO: DAN LEVINE/AFP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ELAINE THOMPSON/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (BELTRE) The Dodgers will be patient with Beltre--and hope that he'll do the same at the plate.

Nothing to It

Although the A's pitchers are much more heralded, the Mariners'
staff has been nearly as effective. Since 2001 only Oakland has
thrown more shutouts than Seattle.

Shutouts Over the Last Three Seasons
2001 2002 2003 Total

A's 9 19 4 32
Mariners 14 12 4 30
Braves 13 15 1 29
Red Sox 9 17 2 28
Mets 14 10 1 25

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)