Perfect Timing/W2W4/K KORNER/THE NUMBER/COMEBACK KIDDER
By Keith Law
WHICH PROSPECTS COULD PROPEL THEIR TEAMS TO SEPTEMBER SUCCESS?
TWO YEARS AGO, BOBBY JENKS CAME up from Double-A Birmingham in July and ended up throwing the last pitch in October. But not all late-season call-ups work out so well. For every playoff hero, like K-Rod (28 K's in 18upostseason IPs in 2002), there's a so-called "Four-A guy" whose weaknesses are exposed, such as the legendary Brad Komminsk, who hit a powerless .222 for the '83 Braves. Here are six current blue-chippers, ranked by immediate impact potential.
ADAM JONES, OF, MARINERS ........
Seattle should have called up this power-hitting, laser-throwing centerfielder in July. The 22-year-old Jones lacks plate discipline (22 K's vs. two walks in his brief '06 stint), and big league breaking balls will be the real test of whether he's ready, but putting him in left gives the M's an unbelievable defensive outfield.
ANDY LAROCHE, 3B, DODGERS ......
LaRoche had all of 38 ABs to prove himself in May and June, and after hitting .211, he was shipped back to Triple-A Las Vegas. But the 23-year-old brother of Pirates 1B Adam LaRoche has put up a .357 BA and hit 13 home runs since, so he should rejoin the Dodgers' other youngsters soon.
JOBA CHAMBERLAIN, RHP, YANKEES ......
The 21-year-old pride of the Winnebago Tribe shot through the minors after starting in Class-A this spring. Chamberlain, drafted out of the U. of Nebraska last year, moved to the pen in late July to prep for his setup role with the big club. His dominant fastball and plus slider let the Yanks deal Scott Proctor.
JUSTIN UPTON, OF, D-BACKS ......
If Arizona fans were excited when B.J. Upton's little brother stole the show at last month's Futures Game, imagine their glee when 19-year-old Justin raked five extra-base hits in his first four big league starts. With Chris Young in center, Upton will patrol rightfield for now.
RHP, RED SOX ....
The Sox have their own top-tier pitching prospect to throw into the pen. The 23-year-old Buchholz is a starter long-term, but he's an ideal short-term reliever because he has plus weapons for righties (a hammer curveball) and lefties (a nasty changeup). Even with Eric Gagne in the mix, Buchholz should get the call.
RICK ANKIEL, OF, CARDINALS
Everybody's comeback player of the year has shown plenty of power, going deep three times in his first three games for St. Louis after hitting 32 Triple-A homers. But don't expect this 28-year-old ex-pitcher to be a regular: He struggled to hit (.267 BA) and reach base (.314 OBP) in the minors.
LITTLE LEAGUE HALL OF EXCELLENCE INDUCTION CEREMONY: WILLIAMSPORT, PA. NHL vet Pierre Turgeon will be honored for leading his Quebec team to within two wins of the 1982 title. A pitcher and shortstop, he hit .555 in the tourney.
BY TIM KURKJIAN
The Twins probably won't have enough money to re-sign TORII HUNTER, a free agent after the season. Instead, they'll save their cash to lock up their biggest stars: JOHAN SANTANA and JUSTIN MORNEAU. Santana is going to cost roughly $25M a year, but the team hopes to re-sign him before he gets to free agency after the 2008 season. If the Twins get into a bidding war with the Yankees, they'll have no chance of keeping their ace Royals skipper BUDDY BELL is a great teacher and talent evaluator, and a big reason why his team is finally moving in the right direction. But for the past year, he's felt that he'd be better off prepping minor leaguers for the big leagues. That's why his resignation (effective at season's end) came as no surprise Sources say Cardinals GM WALT JOCKETTY isn't very happy about no longer having control over player development. It seems bizarre that Jocketty and TONY LA RUSSA could leave the Cards for a team like the Reds, but it's possible The Braves considered trading shortstop EDGAR RENTERIA, because they want to find a place for 24-year-old Cuban YUNEL ESCOBAR, who has been impressive as a utility man. Escobar smacked a walk-off single Aug. 5 against the Rockies and was hitting .316 through 54 games The rapid decline of SP ERVIN SANTANA has baffled the Angels. Scary home and away splits aside (he's 4-2 with a 3.42 ERA in Anaheim; 1-9, 8.79 on the road), one former teammate says he's worried Santana has become another RAMON ORTIZ, a guy who throws a lot of hittable high heat Scouts and GMs are divided on how good LHP KASON GABBARD, shipped from Boston to Texas in the ERIC GAGNE deal, will be. Some swear he's a young JIMMY KEY, while others say he's nothing special, a soft-tosser with a little deception and a bit of sink on his fastball.
After Brwto 33 with a shutout of the Nationals on Aug. 11, the D-Backs ace3andon Webb ran his consecutive scoreless-innings streak as keeping it in perspective. "I'm barely halfway," he said, referring to Orel Hershiser's record 59-inning scoreless streak, set in 1988. Webb is one of three pitchers to spin two separate streaks of 30 or more shutout innings since then (he had a 30-inning scoreless run last year); Roger Clemens and Kenny Rogers are the others.
TROY PERCIVAL DECIDED TO TRY pitching again after he played catch with his 8-year-old son, Cole, and noticed that his arm didn't hurt. So he did some long tossing, threw off a mound and, after some quick phone calls, had scouts from 13 teams watch him pitch at Dodgers Stadium and UC Riverside in late May. Nine teams made an offer. The best one for $600,000 plus incentives, came from the Cardinals; 18 days later he was back in the bigs.
"It happened pretty fast," says Percival, a four-time All-Star who missed most of his 2005 season and all of '06 after a supposedly career-ending injury to his right forearm. "I didn't go out the way I wanted. I wanted the hitters to tell me that I couldn't pitch."
They still haven't. Through 18 IPs this year, he had a 2.50 ERA, with 19 K's and just four walks. The 38-year-old Percival mostly works in middle releif (his career saves total seems locked at 324, 12th all-time) and has had no issues with his arm. His velocity is still coming back, and while he'll never again hit 97 mph, his heater now sits in the low 90s. "When I tried to come back with the Tigers last year," he says, "I couldn't get past 84."
Since joining the Cardinals, Percival has done everything the club has asked-almost. "He told us he can hit, and he's 0-for-2, with two strikeouts on six pitches," jokes Tony La Russa. "It's embarrassing."
Percival, who hit .203 in 1990 as a catcher in the Class-A Northwest League, smiles upon hearing his skipper's complaint. "I'm 0-for-3, with three strikeouts," he says. "What I didn't tell them is that I can hit only off a pitching machine that's throwing 40 mph. I would tell them that I could play shortstop, even though I can't. That's just the way I am." -T.K.
By Jorge Arangure Jr.
MORGAN ENSBERG TAKES HIS BAT AND GOES HOME WITH A MIGHTY SWING, Morgan Ensberg struck out in his first at-bat with the Padres. Oddly enough, this might have been a sign of progress. For too long, Ensberg says, he'd been passive at the plate: "That big cut, that swing out of my tail, that's what is going to make me successful." After all, it was just two years ago, when Ensberg hit .283 with 36 homers and 101 RBIs for the pennant-winning Astros, that former teammate Russ Springer told him, "You have one of the best swings-and-misses in the game."
Whatever happened to that guy? Ensberg hit .234 with 31 homers for the Astros after 2005, including a paltry .149 this June. The SoCal native and USC alum needed a change of scenery, and considering he has a house 20 minutes north of Petco Park-and the Padres were getting limited production from rookie third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff- San Diego seemed the perfect landing spot. "I really felt that a return to the West Coast would benefit him," says Astros GM Tim Purpura.
So after Houston designated the 31-year-old Ensberg for assignment, Purpura worked out a deadline deal with the Padres for a player to be named later. The day after his debut whiff, Ensberg used that whipping swing to hit two homers and a single, helping his new 'mates top surging Arizona. He also approached Kouzmanoff-who's still the starter-to offer encouragement, as Geoff Blum did for Ensberg when Blum joined the Astros in '02. "He's firstclass," Kouzmanoff says of Ensberg. Time will tell if he's also first-string.
WHO'S THE ONLY CURRENT Braves player to have smacked six hits in one game-and to have a street named after him?
Unless you happen to live on Willie Harris Drive in Jackie Robinson's hometown of Cairo, Ga. (pop. 9,600), chances are you whiffed on that bit of trivia. The town renamed West Washington Drive, where Harris grew up, after Harris scored the World Seriesclinching run for the White Sox in 2005. Until recently, that was the high point of his nine years with four different clubs. He relied on his versatility (he's played six positions) and speed, rather than his .238 average, to stay employed.
But after signing with the Braves in December, Harris has made headlines with his glove (his robbery of Carlos Delgado on Aug. 9 may be the catch of the year) and his bat. On July 21, he lit into Cardinals pitching, going 6-for-6 with two triples and 6 RBIs. When asked how he changed his plate approach, the 29-yearold leftfielder looks like he'd rather hide inside the huge hoodie that swallows his 5'9", 170-pound body than give up his secrets. "I don't even know anymore how that guy hit," he says, referring to his old self.
Hitting coach Terry Pendleton, who altered Harris' lefty swing in the spring, is willing to dish the goods: "He was getting his body out in front. I told him to keep his legs underneath him so he could use his hands better." Now Harris has a no-stride stroke, keeping his front foot on the dirt, and it has resulted in a .329 average through Aug. 11. "He's been a huge plus for us," manager Bobby Cox says. "Boy, he's a tough out." -MIKE OGLE
AT THE KEYBOARD: ASTROS SP CHRIS SAMPSON
BUSTER OLNEY SWAPS E-MAIL WITH THE STARS
AT THE KEYBOARD: ASTROS SP CHRIS SAMPSONBUSTER: Brad Ausmus has a rep for being an exceptional receiver. How much difference does that make?
SAMPSON: Brad goes to great lengths to learn each hitter's strengths and weaknesses. It seems like he always knows the right pitch to call at the right time, which is a huge help for a guy like me. Aus catches the ball in the center of his body to make it look as though he never had to move his glove-which in turn gets a lot of strikes from umpires on borderline pitches. And every pitcher loves that.