Baseball

April 16, 2006

Lucky and Good

Promising firstbaseman Chris Shelton got a few breaks, but he looked like The Natural in theTigers' hot start

Although Detroit is abuzz over Tigers first baseman Chris Shelton, the citycan't seem to settle on a nickname for its new sensation. "I've heard justabout everything, from Red Bull to Red Pop to Big Red," says Shelton, a25-year-old redhead. "One radio talk show in Detroit did a poll, but theresults were all over the place. Me, I'm fine with anything."

But all of Motowncan agree on this: Shelton is red hot. Last week the 6-foot, 215-poundrighthanded hitter became the third player in history to hit five home runs inhis first four games of the season (Lou Brock and Barry Bonds are the others)and the first player in 22 years to notch three hits in each of his first threegames. Shelton's heroics powered the Tigers, who were 5-1 through Sunday, totheir best start in 21 years.

Even Shelton isshocked by his slugging--"I don't consider myself a home run hitter atall," he says--though Detroit has believed since making him a Rule 5 pickin December 2003 that he had untapped long ball potential. (Shelton had acareer-high 26 homers last year in Triple A and the majors combined.) A goodcontact hitter who succeeded in the minors by driving the ball to the oppositefield, Shelton had a sit-down last August with then Tigers bench coach KirkGibson, who urged him to concentrate on pulling the ball. Shelton began doingso late last season and continued this spring; four of his five home runs lastweek were to leftfield.

Shelton's shakydefense--he also struggled at catcher and in the outfield in the minors--wasthe main reason that the Pirates, who made him a 33rd-round draft pick in 2001,didn't include him on their 40-man roster three years ago, which allowedDetroit to pick him up for $50,000.

After splittingtime with Carlos Peña at first base last season, batting .299 with 18 homers in388 big league at bats, Shelton spent the winter in his native Salt Lake City,trained with the baseball team at Utah, his alma mater, and focused onimproving his defense, taking hundreds of ground balls. The Tigers sawsignificant improvement in Shelton's glovework during spring training, at whichhe put in extra work with infield coach Rafael Belliard, and cut Peña, who hit27 homers in 2004 but batted .235 last year.

Shelton's hittingfeats in the opening week of this season overshadowed Detroit's impressiveall-around performance. The Tigers became the first team in history to hit 15home runs in its first three games; the pitching staff had a league-leading2.89 ERA through six games; and the defense had yet to commit an error--thefranchise's longest such streak at the start of the season in 12 years.

"They're notthis good--they're virtually the same team [that lost 91 games last year],"says an AL executive, "but what they've shown is that if they get breakoutseasons from guys like Shelton and big years from [23-year-old righthandedstarters] Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, they could absolutely surprisepeople."

In explaining histeam's start, new manager Jim Leyland says, "I think you can use the wordlucky--but I don't think it's totally luck." Shelton, however, is the firstto admit that luck has played a role. Last Saturday against the Rangers, heflicked a low-and-away fastball from Kevin Millwood into rightfield, where theball landed inches inside the foul line. Shelton, who entered the game withthree career triples, cruised into third base with his second of the game. Hestood on the bag with a huge smile, a bit incredulous over his week.

"Everything isa bit surreal," he says. "I know things won't keep falling my way andthe team's way exactly like this--but I do feel like we have a good seasonahead of us."

RED SOXPITCHING

Strong from Startto Finish

With dominantback-to-back wins to open the season--in 14 innings he gave up just eight hitsand three walks while striking out nine--Boston righthander Curt Schillingserved notice that he's an ace again, at 39. Last Saturday in Baltimore he wasclinging to a 2-1 lead with runners on first and second in the seventh inning,when he reached back on his 114th and final pitch of the night and blew a96-mph fastball (his fastest of the game) past Orioles first baseman JeffConine for strike three.

Schilling's powerwas curtailed last season after November 2004 surgery to repair the famouslydetached tendon in his right ankle, which prevented him from properly pushingoff the pitching rubber. Doctors told him that he'd need 18 months for a fullrecovery; he hits the 18-month mark next month. "All spring I'd said that Ihaven't felt this good since 2002 [when he went 23-7 with theDiamondbacks]," Schilling says. "Now I'm able to go out there and backthat up. I feel great; velocity-wise, when I need it, I have it."

Schilling's statuswas a big question for Boston; another was the effectiveness of the bullpen,which had the second-highest ninth-inning ERA in the majors last year (5.11).The Red Sox answered that one in a surprising way last week: In three savesituations manager Terry Francona tapped 25-year-old righthander JonathanPapelbon, who was a closer at Mississippi State but ultimately projects as astarter, instead of 2003 All-Star righty Keith Foulke, who has had two kneeoperations since last July.

A 6'4"230-pounder who attacks the strike zone with mid-90s fastballs, Papelbondazzled in his first two save chances, preserving one-run wins over the Rangersand the Orioles by retiring three straight hitters in each game. Francona hasyet to officially anoint the rookie as the closer, but he has indicated thatFoulke, who through Sunday had allowed three hits and one earned run in threeinnings, will have to prove he's back in form to get another shot at thejob.

Booster Shot

With a 5-1 record at week's end, the Brewers were off totheir best start since 1987 and were the early surprise of the National League.Milwaukee fans were so giddy, they were cheering even the players who struggledat the outset: On April 4 first baseman Prince Fielder, 21, struck out for theseventh time in his first eight at bats, but when he next stepped to the plate,the crowd of 15,515 at Miller Park gave him a standing ovation. "Iappreciate it," Fielder (right) said of the fan support. "You don'texpect it in that situation." The following day he hit a game-winningsingle against the Pirates, and last Saturday the son of former All-Starslugger Cecil Fielder homered in a 5-4 win over the Diamondbacks.

PHOTOBARRY TAYLOR/WIREIMAGE.COMHIGH FIVE Shelton had a .583 average to go with his gaudy power numbers in the first week of the season. PHOTOORLIN WAGNER/AP[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (FIELDER)

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)