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Wednesday, May 23
Veteran pitchers given longer leash

By Sean McAdam
Special to

In the course of a game, one of the most difficult decisions a manager or pitching coach has to make is how long to stay with a starting pitcher who is struggling.

Over the course of a season, the same decision applies.

Center stage
Troy Percival
A year ago, Troy Percival seriously considered retirement at the age of 30. His right shoulder ached from surgery the previous winter, his elbow flared up in the second half of the season and the life on his fastball and buckling curve was missing.

He blew 10 of 42 save chances, registered a 4.50 ERA and looked like he had gotten old before his time.

That was last year.

This year, Percival is pitching the way he did five years ago. His fastball has occasionally touched 100 mph. His curve is once again leaving hitters locked at the plate. His confidence has soared with his velocity.

"Coming into this year, I was still very unsure of what it would be," Percival said. "I was proud to battle through (last) year, but I didn't want to do that to my team, my family or myself again. Now, I'm pitching pain free and I really enjoy doing my job."

Hitters aren't having quite as much fun at the plate. Percival is a perfect 10-for-10 in save opportunities and has given up just one extra-base hit and two runs. He's registered 20 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings and opposing batters are hitting just .094 against him.

Beyond his improved health, Percival credits manager Mike Scioscia for using him wisely. Closing in on 200 career saves (he's at 181), Percival feels revitalized enough to go for another 200.
-- Sean McAdam

How much patience needs to be given to a veteran pitcher who finds himself in a slump? How long does a team wait for a veteran to rediscover his winning ways? How much time is a former star given when he's no longer pitching like one?

It's a question that many teams are wrestling with this season. Jose Lima was temporarily taken out of the rotation in Houston, in the hope he could recover in the bullpen. The Mets persuaded Steve Trachsel that he would be better off getting re-tooled at Triple-A.

Other veterans continue to struggle -- Oakland's Gil Heredia. Texas' Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers. San Francisco's Kirk Rueter.

How long is too long?

No one knows how stressful such a scenario can be better than David Cone.

A year ago, Cone suffered through his worst season in the major leagues. He was healthy, but nonetheless compiled a 6.91 ERA and gave up 192 hits in 155 innings. He won just four games in 29 starts for a first-place team.

This was far from the Cone who had pitched a perfect game the previous year, or the one who won 20 games in 1998.

Yet, sometimes to his amazement, Cone kept getting the call.

"It was very delicate," admitted Cone. "Ironically, it became a a problem for me because I didn't want to put Joe (Torre) and Mel (Stottlemyre) in a difficult position. It was better when I was young, cocky and arrogant, when I didn't care about those things."

As Cone's winless streak dragged through the summer and his ERA remained in the stratosphere, he felt more and more guilty. Finally, just after the All-Star break, he went to Torre.

"I told Joe point blank, 'When you've seen enough, let me know,' " recalled Cone.

But Torre never lost faith. Only a separated shoulder late in the season knocked Cone out of the Yankees' rotation.

Now that Cone has been leap-frogged into the Red Sox rotation after just one minor-league rehab assignment, Jimy Williams and Joe Kerrigan could find themselves in the same dilemma if Cone can't improve on his 2000 season.

Struggling Veterans
A. Benes, STL 3-3 6.60
R. Helling, TEX 1-6 7.19
G. Heredia, OAK 3-5 7.84
J. Lima, HOU 1-2 7.14
K. Rogers, TEX 3-3 5.97
K. Rueter, SF 4-5 6.63
S. Trachsel, NYM 1-6 8.24

The Sox are no stranger to pitching reclamation projects, having steered, among others, Butch Henry, Bret Saberhagen, Rheal Cormier and others through career-threatening surgeries and back into productive roles.

Some other experiments haven't been as successful.

Last year, Ramon Martinez was no more effective than Cone, compiling a 6.13 ERA. He won 10 games to Cone's four, but only because he was the recipient of better run support.

"In each situation," said Kerrigan, the Red Sox' respected pitching coach, "you have to consider your options, too. If you have viable options (in the system), you don't have to be as patient. You owe it to the club to make a move."

Last year, Martinez was willing to work on some adjustments suggested by Kerrigan, buying him additional time to implement the changes. Other Sox veterans -- Steve Avery, for one -- resisted suggested adjustments and were eventually removed from the rotation.

As Kerrigan noted, a lot has to do with expectations. If a young team has a struggling veteran, there's little reason to delay the development of a young, promising pitcher. But for a team with designs on the playoffs, time is of the essence.

"When you're trying to get to the end," Kerrigan said, "then you might stay with experience over a kid. Even though a veteran might not have the stuff and physical tools that a young pitcher has, there's something to be said for know-how and experience in the heat of a pennant race. There are certain intangibles that a young pitcher doesn't have."

From the scout's seat
The five best infield arms, according to one major league scout:

1. Scott Rolen: "Certain guys can just get it across the diamond in a hurry -- Rolen's one of them."

2. Derek Jeter: "He's flexible and can throw from anywhere. Accuracy from every spot in the infield, including cutoffs and relays."

3. Rafael Furcal: "A pure-plus arm."

4. Pokey Reese: "An athletic guy who can throw from a lot of different places. Has great arm strength from a lot of different angles.

5. Ken Caminiti: "He knows he still has a strong arm and he's not afraid to show it off.

Up and down
Up: Ryan Klesko
Klesko has been terrorizing National League pitching and is one of the primary reasons for the Padres' surprise inclusion into the NL West race.

Ryan Klesko
First Base
San Diego Padres
42 12 42 38 10 .305

In the last week alone, Klesko is hitting .483 (14-for-29) with five homers and 15 RBI. He's driven in 31 runs in his last 19 games and 15 of his last 27 hits have been for extra bases.

In each of his last two games, he's had two homers.

"The man can flat out punish a baseball," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy. "Some of the balls he's hitting are scary."

Paired with Bubba Trammell and Phil Nevin, the Padres now have a formidable middle of the lineup, with much more power than a year ago.

Bochy said before the season that Klesko is capable of having the kind of season that Oakland's Jason Giambi had last year. Less than two months into the season, the first baseman is making his manager look like a prophet.

Down: Chicago Cubs
Wasn't it only yesterday that the Cubs were holding down first place in the NL Central?

Seems that way. But after a surprising April, the Cubs are in the middle of a predictable May. Before winning their last three heading into Wednesday, they had had dropped eight in a row.

The team is hitting .250 for the month and the staff ERA is at 5.01. Tom Gordon, who took over the closer's role from Jeff Fassero, has struggled. Sammy Sosa is sidelined with a back problem. Eric Young has missed the last three games.

In other words, the Cubs have returned to earth.

The List
Bob Dylan turns 60 Thursday. Many ardent fans remember that Dylan once recorded "Catfish," an ode to Jim "Catfish" Hunter. What you may not know is that many of Dylan's songs are also, ahem, secretly about baseball.

With help from noted Dylanolgist Don Aicardi, a look at Bob's Top 10 Diamond Dandies and their hidden baseball references.

1) "It Ain't Me, Babe." Someone dips into George Herman Ruth's cigar and liquor stash. Clean-living Lou Gehrig protests his innocence.
2) "Saved." Life story of Lee Smith, baseball's all-time saves leader.
3) "Going, Going Gone." Dylan's ode to the long ball.
4) "I Shall Be Released." Classic hymn, often sung by aging players at the end of spring training.
5) "Ballad of a Thin Man." A reference, no doubt, to former Pirates reliever Kent Tekulve.
6) "What Was it You Wanted." Tales from inside the arbitration hearing room.
7) "Frankie and Albert." Charming ditty about the two seasons Frank Thomas and Albert Belle spent together in Chicago.
8) "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)." A look back at the 1961 Bronx Bombers.
9) "I Threw It All Away." Haunting ballad tells the story of Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden.
10) "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)." Dylan puts to song the behind-the-scene negotiations between Red Sox GM Dan Duquette and former Sox stars Mo Vaughn and Roger Clemens.

Question of the week
Do players have any semblance of reality?

Sometimes, no. Take Boston's Troy O'Leary.

O'Leary went through a miserable first half of last season, hitting just .227 with seven homers and 23 RBI. Part of this was due to a difficult divorce, which affected O'Leary greatly at the plate. Realizing this, the Red Sox went to extraordinary lengths to place O'Leary on the 15-day DL to give him time to get away from the game and straighten out his personal life. During this time, of course, he was paid fully.

He rebounded somewhat, but after a strong spring, began this season the same way he began last, hitting just .195 in April with one homer. Still, Jimy Williams stayed with him until recently, when he began giving more playing time to Dante Bichette.

Naturally, this lack of loyalty infuriated O'Leary, who suggested it was time for the Red Sox to move him elsewhere.

What O'Leary fails to realize, of course, is that the Sox have been trying to find a taker for him since the end of last season. But teams aren't eager to take on $4.6 million in salary for a player who hasn't put together a consistent season since 1999 and is an average outfielder on his best days.

McAdam's Corner
Baseball has been trying for the better part of the last decade to realign itself along more sensible geographic lines that would reduce travel and enhance rivalries.

Football took less than an hour to get it right Tuesday.

What's the difference? Common sense and cooperation, of which baseball owners have little of both.

Sure, there were some pockets of unhappiness in the NFL board room. The Arizona Cardinals, for instance, didn't want to lose the Dallas Cowboys and the guaranteed sellout they represent once a year. But the Cardinals saw the big picture -- that realignment made sense for the league as a whole, if not necessarily for the Cards' bottom line.

Would that baseball owners could be so magnanimous. Instead, owners act out of their own self-interest. Even the Arizona Diamondbacks, who signed off on their right to refuse a league reassignment in their first four seasons, are still whining and complaining about the prospect of being moved to the American League.

Imagine the reaction, if, say, Jacksonville and Carolina, relative football newcomers, held up the rest of the NFL with their petty demands.

But then, that's long been the difference between the two leagues. And that's a big reason why the NFL has overtaken MLB as the nation's most popular sport in the last 20 years.

Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal writes a major-league notebook each week during the baseball season for

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