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Long Swing Makes for Long Nights : Angels' Pettis Still Struggling to Keep His Leadoff Spot

April 23, 1986|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

Each night Gary Pettis plays two ballgames: one against an opposing pitcher, the other against himself.

Lately, neither box score is particularly fun to examine.

At last look, Pettis, the Angels' splendid defensive center fielder, was in the midst of a batting slump. That can take the bounce out of anyone's step. In his last 15 at-bats, Pettis has one hit (.066). And in his last six games, Pettis is 4 for 23 (.174), numbers that help explain why he spends his postgame moments reconstructing what went wrong at the plate.

"I think about offense more than I think about anything else," he said. "That could be part of the problem.

"I tend to play every at-bat over and over it seems after a game," he said. "There's nothing I can do about it then. On the way home . . . once I get home, I try to figure out what I could have done differently to maybe have gotten a hit or hit the ball better."

Pettis has better things to do with his time, such as get on base more often, steal bases, score runs. But it seems he can't rid himself of a nasty habit--his swing.

This isn't any swing. It's a "long" swing, meaning it takes a while before bat meets ball. In Pettis' case, a long swing also means all sorts of trouble.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us," said Moose Stubing, Angel batting coach.

For starters, the Angels aren't thrilled about their leadoff man swinging for the stars. They liked it better when Pettis reached first base by more conventional methods, like singles or walks or bunts. Warning-track material, he's not.

Last September and October, Pettis batted an impressive .304. He did it with lots of line drives to left field. This was the Pettis that Angel Manager Gene Mauch enjoyed watching. His elegant fielding was almost an afterthought.

"I have a borderline, passionate desire for Gary Pettis to become a pesky, effective offensive player," Mauch said. "The minute he gets on first base, he's one of the best players in the world."

To help get him get on base, Mauch and Pettis had a brief discussion in right field long before Tuesday evening's game against the Oakland A's started at Anaheim Stadium. You could see Mauch conducting class. On occasion, Mauch would cock a bat and demonstrate a stance. Pettis, bats in hand, batting helmet on, stood and watched with interest.

"Basically, he was telling me that my swing was too long, that I need to start bearing down and do the things I'm capable of doing out there," Pettis said. "I don't think it was anything I didn't know . . .

"He doesn't want me to hit the ball to outfielders. He wants me to hit it front of them."

Easier said than done. He has undergone tutoring by Mauch and Stubing, tried an assorted number of stances and attempted to shorten the length of his swing. But somehow the darn thing gets longer and so does the time between hits.

In jeopardy is Pettis' beloved leadoff position. Pettis was built for speed, which lends itself to the No. 1 spot in the batting order.

But as he attempts to pry himself out of his difficulties, Pettis has found himself batting first, seventh, eighth and ninth. Bobby Grich, Rick Burleson and Ruppert Jones also have taken turns at the No. 1 spot with mixed results.

"Ideally we'd like to have Pettis hit first," Stubing said. "He leads off and we have maybe 110, 115 runs, 70 stolen bases."

Adds Mauch: "I guarantee it he doesn't want to lead off any more than I want him to lead off."

Which is why Mauch and Pettis had their little chat before Tuesday's game.

According to this season's statistics, Pettis performs better as a leadoff man. He has 8 hits in 27 at-bats (.296) as the first batter in the order, compared to 0 for 7 in the seventh spot, 1 for 3 in the eighth spot and 4 for 18 (.222) as the No. 9 hitter.

"I would love to hit in the leadoff spot, whether I'm going bad or not," Pettis said. "It seems that when I'm not hitting first, I'm missing part of the game. When I'm hitting lower in the order, it's like I've missed the first two innings."

On Tuesday, Pettis found his name in the leadoff position. He promptly singled. Then he promptly was thrown out trying to steal second, the fourth time in seven attempts he's been caught stealing.

Great. Something new to add to the postgame show.

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