Baseball

August 13, 2006

SoCal, SoCool

The move from NewYork to San Diego brought relief to Mike Piazza, who's happy to be catching andpounding the ball again

In the fourmonths Mike Piazza has been in San Diego, he has grown out his hair into ascruffy mop, rediscovered his swing and found inner peace. "The last fewyears in New York were depressing, with my injuries, the team struggling and mycoming to grips with the reality that I wasn't the same player I was 10 yearsago," says the 37-year-old catcher, who after eight seasons with the Metssigned a one-year, $1.25 million free-agent contract with the Padres lastJanuary. "I came here with a clean slate, no expectations. Change has beenjust what the doctor ordered."

The SoCal lifehas worked wonders: Free of New York City and its merciless tabloids, Piazza,who resides a few blocks from the beach, has quietly been one of this season'smost productive catchers. At week's end the future Hall of Famer, hittingcleanup for the NL West leader, ranked first in homers (16) and 10th inslugging percentage (.525) among major league backstops. "He's rejuvenated,he seems to have a quicker bat and he's handling the inside pitch better,"says Giants reliever Mike Stanton. "[Earlier] this season the book was'Pound him in.' Then he homered off us on an inside pitch."

At the start ofMay, Piazza was hitting .210 and pondering retirement after the season, whichwould bring a focus on fatherhood (wife Alicia is expecting the couple's firstchild in February) and a new career working with his father, Vince, asuccessful businessman in real estate and import-export. But after tweaking hisbatting stance--crouching lower and keeping his weight back in order to getunder the ball more--he turned around his season and put those retirement planson hold. From May 12 through Sunday, Piazza hit .330 with 13 homers. "I'mdefinitely coming back next season," he says. "I think I've proved thatI can still play."

Few in baseballthought so last winter, when there was little demand for Piazza--a .319 careerhitter with 358 homers from 1992 through 2003; he then hit .249 and 39 homerscombined in the next two seasons. He ended his final year as a Met believinghe'd wind up on an American League team as a part-time catcher and DH. "Iwas so conditioned to hearing, 'He's going to DH, he's going to DH,' that I wasresigned to it," Piazza says. But, to his surprise, no AL contenders showedinterest. Then, in January, the Padres came knocking. Says Piazza, "Icalled up [family friend] Tommy Lasorda and told him, 'San Diego wants me tocatch.' He said, 'You can still freakin' do it. You're in good shape. You gottado it!' The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with him."

Of San Diego'sfirst 100 games, Piazza started 60 behind the plate; his workload has beenclosely monitored by manager Bruce Bochy, who has used Jason Bard (.333, 28RBIs) and Rob Bowen (.292, 12 RBIs) as backups. One day last week Bochy, aformer catcher, remarked to Piazza, "You look a little tired," thentold him he would give him the next two days off. Says Piazza, "He wasright. I was run-down, and though it's tough to sit because I've been swingingthe bat well, I know that we have big weeks ahead in September. I have to pacemyself."

Though Piazzaremains a defensive liability--base runners had stolen 66 bases on him (secondmost in the NL) and been thrown out a league-low 9.6% of the time--there hasbeen no talk by the Padres of moving him to first base, where 24-year-oldAdrian Gonzalez (.306, 19 homers) is having a breakout year. San Diego holds an$8 million option on Piazza for next season, and though he won't be re-signedat that price, the team has interest in retaining him with another economicalone-year deal.

Piazza, however,knows not to count on anything. "As I learned last winter, you just neverknow what teams' situations are," he says. "I'm just taking this day-to-day and enjoying every moment of great weather."

INDIANS'CLOSER

One RoughInitiation

Rookierighthander Fausto Carmona served up walk-off home runs to the Red Sox' DavidOrtiz and the Tigers' Ivan Rodriguez, plus a walk-off double to Boston's MarkLoretta, in three appearances last week. The 22-year-old sinkerballer, whobecame the Indians' closer after Bob Wickman was traded to the Braves on July20 was torched for 11 earned runs in a total of only 22/3 innings (a 37.12 ERA)in four games. (In addition to blowing those three save opportunities, he alsofailed to protect a tie score to become the second pitcher in major leaguehistory to lose four games in relief in a span of a week. The Twins' RickLysander also did it, in 1983.)

"I don't feelgood about the situation," said Carmona after the loss to Detroit onSaturday. "But as long as they keep giving me the ball, I will go after thehitters."

The Indians' useof Carmona, a 6'4", 220-pound Dominican who was signed by Cleveland justafter he turned 17, was curious: One of their top young arms, he had made onlyseven relief appearances in his five-year minor league career before thisseason; and despite the disastrous results the club was so desperate for reliefhelp that it still planned on keeping him in the bullpen as a middle reliever."He's got electric stuff, but Cleveland put him in a tough position,"says an AL scout. "He shouldn't be a closer--he relies on his plus sinkerand doesn't strike out too many. Now you just hope that his psyche hasn't beentoo wounded, hurting his development."

• Read TomVerducci every week at SI.com/baseball.

Pressure's on Javy

The Red Sox moved quickly to replace catcher JasonVaritek, who is out until at least early September with a partially tornligament in his left knee, making a waiver deal with Baltimore to get JavyLopez. But what can Boston realistically expect from the 35-year-old Lopez, whowas mostly a DH with the Orioles this year (.265 average, eight homers, 31RBIs) and had caught a total of 98 games for them in 2005 and '06?"Injuries have made him ineffective, and he's got no life in his bat,"says an AL scout. "[Lopez] is a big-time defensive liability, and I don'tthink he can take the rigors of catching every day." In his first threegames for Boston, Lopez went a combined 0 for 10 and had runners steal twobases against him.

TWO PHOTOSCHRIS CARLSON/AP; BRAD MANGIN (INSET)SITTING PRETTY Leading major league catchers in home runs with 16 at week's end, Piazza no longer plans to retire after the season. PHOTOCHRIS O'MEARA/AP (LOPEZ)

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)