Insider | Short Hops | Love Letters
It hasn't reached the point where they're quizzing the elevator operators at old Veterans Stadium about whether their feet are too close together or too far apart in the batter's box, but that day can't be too far off for David Bell and Pat Burrell.
|Jim Thome's power numbers have been respectable, but his .247 batting average is 40 points below his career mark.(AP)|
Far from Killer B's, Bell and Burrell have been more like the Phillies' Malingering Moths. Click on a light, and they bump into it.
"You get to that point and everybody is offering advice," Philadelphia hitting coach Greg Gross says. "I know from when I played. You're getting advice from everybody. And you ask everybody, from the pitching coach to the parking lot attendant: 'Hey, you see anything different in my swing last night?'
"When it goes well, it's amazing how easy it is. And it's amazing how quickly it can turn."
What the Phillies are finding out is that sometimes it's easier winning at the free-agent poker tables over the winter than it is in Seattle in June, and the maddening thing is that hitting was never supposed to be a problem with these guys.
Instead, the Phillies, at midweek, ranked 12th in the National League in home runs (58), 12th in slugging percentage (.397) and 13th in stranding runners (471). They are spinning their wheels in third place, 10 games behind the Atlanta Braves. So many nights, they have wasted what should be winning pitching -- the Phillies ranked third in the NL with a 3.61 ERA at midweek.
"We haven't produced the way we thought we would or should, but the way you've got to think is we're playing above .500 even as erratic as our offense has been, and a lot of pitchers have gotten war-tested as far as making good pitches (under pressure)," Gross says. "Our starting pitching has been tremendous."
Gross has been the subject of scrutiny himself and acknowledges feeling the heat, and right now, this side of Yankees' hitting coach Rick Down, Gross probably is one of the least secure hitting coaches in the land.
"They're always going to blame somebody, and the easiest guy to blame is the hitting coach," he says.
Right now, though, he's more concerned with lighting a fire under a lethargic offense than rumors of any impending dismissal.
And Gross isn't the only one wondering what's going on.
"It's been a struggle up to this point, but we've got a long way to go," says Bell, who entered the season with a lifetime .256 batting average. "It doesn't do me any good to think about it. You just come out every day and work and work to get your swing where it needs to be."
Nobody expected this. General manager Ed Wade not only had money to spend last winter, he spent it as thoughtfully as you could ask. He landed the veteran slugger the club needed for the middle of its lineup in Jim Thome (six years, $87.5 million). He reeled in Bell, a smart veteran with a proven track record as a winner.
And when he completed the trade for Atlanta's Kevin Millwood, the Phillies appeared to emerge as a serious favorite in the NL East. It was going to be the perfect mix of veterans and youth, talent and hunger.
Make no mistake, it isn't as if anybody is writing the Phillies off right now. Despite their sputtering, they remain one good, solid winning streak away from springing right back into the thick of things.
It's just that, this waiting around is getting old.
Burrell does have 11 homers and 28 RBI, but he's far, far away from the .282-37-116 season he posted in 2002.
"There are a lot of things I'm doing wrong," Burrell says. "The biggest thing is pitch selection. I've got to swing at better pitches. I'm out there swinging at everything the guy throws instead of letting the strike zone come to me."
Says Gross: "We've seen some good series' where it looks like he's starting to get the feel of what he had last year, but he hasn't been able to maintain it. He'll have a good series, then a bad series, then a good series. And when he has a good series, he hasn't had many results. Until a hitter sees results with what he's working on, he's apt to see five other things he thinks is wrong and get in even deeper."
That's been among Burrell's problems. His flawed swing this season has turned into his regular swing, and everything has compounded.
As for Bell, at least he's got seven big-league seasons worth of experience to draw from (Burrell has completed two full seasons), and he's lived through slumps like this.
"Just probably about 15 or 20 times," he said. "It's been a struggle for a couple of months now. We've all been there before. When it's a long period of time like that, you get to the point where, when you turn it around, you want to get something out of it. You want to become a better hitter for the rest of your career when you come out of it.
"I know that's going to happen."
Bell dismisses the notion that he might be feeling pressure to perform in a new city with a big-bucks contract. He's faced pressure in winning environments in San Francisco and Seattle over the past few seasons and succeeded, he says, and besides, he loves Philadelphia.
"I'm confident I'm going to help us win and be a big part of the team here," he says. "Just because things haven't gone my way or the way I'd like them to ... All you can do is what I've been doing, have a very positive outlook on what's going to happen."
Thome's numbers aren't anything to rave about, either, though he is faring better than Bell and Burrell. Though at .247 his batting average is 40 points below his career average (.287), he does have 15 homers and 48 RBI -- ninth in the league.
"No. 1, I'm kind of adjusting to a new league," Thome says. "I'm just trying to do my homework, figure out what they're trying to do."
Rather than look at the Phillies' malaise, Thome says you must also look at the .688 clip at which the Braves have been playing.
"You've got to give them credit," Thome says.
And while they do, the Phillies will get back to work, spend extra hours in the batting cage and take a few hundred extra swings a day while searching for answers.
"As bad as it is, you have to deal from the positions and standpoint that they don't lose total confidence in what they're doing," Gross says. "They have to continue to think they're good hitters, and the results are going to come.
"That's the only way you can work ... Guys aren't going to go from .210 to .300, or from .200 to .250 in one day. Each day, you've got to start new because whatever happened until this point, we can't change."
More than anything at this point in the season, it's mental. And Gross knows it.
"All you hear about is our inability to score runs," Gross says. "I don't care who you are, it affects you."
The big, bad Wolf(s)
One of the more interesting and least-noticed moments of the season passed this week in Anaheim, where umpire Jim Wolf worked a series involving the Philadelphia Phillies -- a club featuring pitcher Randy Wolf, Jim's brother.
Having pitched Sunday in Philadelphia, Randy didn't face the Angels. So there was no chance of the brothers bumping into each other too closely.
Jim Wolf, who is listed in the major league umpires' information guide as a "Triple-A Reserve Umpire", worked his first major-league game in 1999 -- the same year Randy debuted for the Phillies.
They rarely run into each other on the field, though they've done so enough that Randy now says it is no longer awkward.
"It was in '99," Randy Wolf says. "My rookie year, he did a game in San Francisco and it was weird. Now, I've seen him on TV so much it seems normal."
The Wolfs' mother attended the first two games of this week's Philadelphia-Angels series in Anaheim, and you can say this: Unlike in situations where two brothers play for different clubs, at least in this case a mother can root for both of her sons.
"When the Yankees (Jason Giambi) play the Red Sox (Jeremy Giambi), I don't know what the Giambi family is going to do," Randy Wolf says. "That would be a tough one."
No small loss
The Dodgers bid farewell to the highly respected Dave Wallace this week. Wallace is moving back home to become the interim pitching coach in Boston, and the Dodgers' loss surely will be the Red Sox's gain. Wallace knows pitching, he's a terrific communicator and he relates well to players.
All of those qualities played into his success in Los Angeles -- success that might not be readily visible to the average fan right now, but good work that will be readily seen in the near future if the Dodgers keep moving in the direction they couldn't find before Wallace rejoined the organization after the 2000 season: Forward.
Wallace became the interim general manager after the Dodgers fired Kevin Malone early in the 2001 season, and it was Wallace who was instrumental in building the club's current infrastructure -- including current GM Dan Evans, senior advisors Joe Amalfitano and John Boles, minor-league director Bill Bavasi and minor-league field coordinator Terry Collins.
The Dodgers remain burdened by the weight of several bad contracts from the Malone era -- most notably those of Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort, as well as indirectly that of Todd Hundley (the Dodgers acquired him as a way to dump the bad contracts of Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek). But Wallace leaves the club in much better shape than he found it, and it isn't everybody who can say that.
Modern Language 101
Life is difficult when your team changes pitchers more often than Britney Spears changes outfits. But that's been the case for Arizona catcher Chad Moeller during a season in which the Diamondbacks already have equaled a club record by using 12 starting pitchers.
Among other things, it has presented several challenges for Moeller -- some of them not simply of the standard let's-get-the-signs-straight variety.
"You have to make sure you speak Spanish, that's for sure," Moeller says.
Fortunately, after spending two seasons in the Dominican Republic winter league and four years studying Spanish in school, Moeller speaks enough to get by.
Knowing when to hold 'em
While Chuck Finley sits on the sidelines and ponders his next free-agent move -- he worked out for Boston the other day but wants to sign with a team closer to his southern California home -- another lefty in a similar position last winter is loving life with the Minnesota Twins. Even if, for Kenny Rogers, it is only a one-year audition.
Rogers signed with the Twins for one year and $2 million this spring after Eric Milton went down with a knee injury, and like Finley, he fielded several offers he thought were far too low. Also like Finley, Rogers was looking for the right situation -- a playoff contender in a nice location.
"It's a great team, and we've got a great chance to make the playoffs," Rogers says. "They're very good defensively -- as good as there is in the game.
"Before I signed, I knew things that were good about them. For this year, at least, I've got a good chance to get to the playoffs ... and then we'll see."
The market was very dry for Rogers last season, who made $7.126 million while going 13-8 with a very good 3.84 ERA in Texas' park that favors hitters.
"I was surprised, yeah," Rogers says. "It was a different market, without a doubt. But I waited for a team I thought I'd fit in well with."
Count them in favor of the DH
What's notable about Cleveland placing pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez on the disabled list this week with a strained right triceps is this: He claims to have suffered the injury while swinging a bat in batting practice while preparing for interleague play before a May 23 start against Boston.
Assuming he's not fibbing or exaggerating -- Rodriguez, after all, didn't breath a word of his injury until giving up 12 earned runs on 14 hits in 7 2/3 innings of starts in Colorado and Arizona -- you can't blame the Indians for lobbying against interleague play. Because in addition to Rodriguez, the Indians in past seasons also have lost reliever Paul Shuey (right elbow) and starter Jaret Wright (smashed finger) to injuries involving their handling -- loosely speaking -- of a bat.
You know, those bobblehead dolls are much more elusive than they appear:
- Florida gave away 10,000 Charlie Hough bobbleheads last weekend to commemorate the first pitch in Marlins history (April 5, 1993), but what the Marlins really needed first was an editor. The dolls arrived from the manufacturer just three days before giveaway day and the "n" in "Marlins" was backwards. So fans received a doll plus a coupon good for a new doll -- with a proper "n" -- when they arrive later in the year.
- Milwaukee will proceed with Jeffrey Hammonds Bobblehead Day on July 13 despite the minor inconvenience that the club released Hammonds last week. Ah, why not? The Brewers proceeded with Bob Wickman All-Star Poster Day in 2000 ... a few weeks after they had traded him to Cleveland.
Minnesota right-hander Brad Radke's top five fishing holes (so to speak):
- Gulf of Mexico (Radke lives in Tampa, Fla.)
- Lake Minnetonka (Minnesota)
- Off the coast of Panama
- Florida Keys
- Lake of the Woods (between the Minnesota-Canadian border).