CLEARWATER, Fla. — By all indications, this was supposed to be the most uncertain spring of Steve Sax's career. He was facing a reluctant move from second base to third, and he had been mentioned by some as the most likely Dodger to be traded.
So, what happened? Pedro Guerrero surprised many by agreeing to play third base, and Mariano Duncan has faltered at second. Sax has found himself back at his former position and considered a valued member of the infield.
Consequently, Sax is enjoying his most productive spring. His two singles Monday in the Dodgers' 9-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies extended his hitting streak to 15 games and improved his batting average to .469.
"I'm very relaxed, and I feel great at the plate," Sax said. "I think this could be my best year coming up."
As with many other Dodger veterans, last season was not Sax's best. After finishing second behind the Montreal Expos' Tim Raines for the National League batting title in 1986 with a .332 batting average, Sax's average dropped to .280 and he had only 46 runs batted in.
But an off-season program that included weight training, extensive stretching and plenty of hitting apparently has helped Sax regain his 1986 form.
Of course, it's only spring training.
"Yeah, I've heard that, but I'll tell you one thing," Sax said. "It's the biggest farce when people say you're going to leave all your hits in spring training. A guy can get 50 hits in the spring and still get 200 during the season. I can't believe some people think that."
In Sax's case, a good spring often translates into a good regular season. Last year, for instance, Sax hit only .254 in spring training and continued to struggle thereafter.
Sax, who has had at least one hit in each of the 15 spring games in which he has played, said he did not come to camp with something to prove. He said that he was willing to play third base, if asked, but said he had had no doubts as to his future.
"I felt I was going to play somewhere," said Sax, who no longer does any work at third base. "I was hoping it was here. I like playing in L.A. Whether it was third or second, I didn't mind. I don't feel like I'm competing for a job. They've seen me for six years. They know what I can do."
Among Dodger regulars, Sax has the highest batting average and has scored three times as many runs, 16, as any other player. Sax said that, given the potentially productive lineup that includes Guerrero, Kirk Gibson and Mike Davis, he doesn't feel the pressure to produce.
"I like our lineup the way it is now," Sax said. "We've got a good chance to win any game with that lineup."
Even after giving up five runs and seven hits in five innings--including a balk that scored a run--Monday against the Phillies, Tim Belcher still seems to be the top contender for the Dodgers' fifth starting spot in the pitching rotation. Belcher had a 3-1 lead until the fourth, when he gave up three runs on four hits and balked home Juan Samuel.
Home plate umpire Bob Davidson told Belcher that he did not bring his hands to a complete stop at his belt before starting his delivery. Umpires have been given a mandate to make sure a pitcher comes to a "discernable" stop before raising his front leg. Belcher said he consciously came to an exaggerated stop but still was called for the balk. "The reason I got so mad was that right before then I told myself, 'Be sure to come to a set position before bringing your leg up.' I thought I did that," Belcher said. . . . Len Matuszek, who reinjured his left ankle, has returned to Los Angeles to be examined by Dr. Ron Smith, a foot specialist.
Pitching coach Ron Perranoski did not make the trip. He remained in Vero Beach to work with reliever Jesse Orosco, who gave up five hits and two earned runs in three innings, pitching against the Dodgers' triple-A team. Orosco was scheduled to pitch four innings. . . . Mike Sharperson ended a slump during which he went 0 for 13 with a pinch-single.