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Baseball : Athletics Draw an Ace From Their Bullpen: Dennis Eckersley

May 01, 1988|Ross Newhan

With Dave Parker, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Carney Lansford and Don Baylor, there was no question that the Oakland Athletics held the hammer in the American League West.

But what about the nails? Did they have a closer?

Dennis Eckersley seems to have removed the doubt.

Primarily a starter in 12 seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, who unloaded his salary just before the start of the 1987 season, the aggressive and hard-throwing Eckersley was thrust into short relief when Jay Howell injured his elbow in midseason last year.

Eckersley responded with 16 saves. With Howell traded to the Dodgers, Eckersley has been virtually perfect as the relief ace.

No surprise, insists Manager Tony LaRussa.

"I saw it in his eyes last year," LaRussa said of Eckersley's adaptability. "He enjoys the competition. He likes that pressure."

The 33-year-old right-hander has proved it in his first nine appearances, registering nine saves. Through 11 innings, Eckersley has not allowed a run. Opposing hitters are batting .128.

Is it any wonder that the Athletics are 10-0 in games they have led after seven innings, that they are 7-1 in games decided after seven innings and that, after rallying to win only eight games they trailed after seven innings last season, they have already rallied and held on to win five?

Eckersley said he loves the pressure.

"It's a weird feeling," he said. "You've faced only a few batters, but when you come off it feels like you've gone nine innings."

Before the switch, Eckersley pitched 100 complete games in 361 starts. Now he appears regularly in the ninth inning.

"I was only around to shake hands six or seven times a year," Eckersley said of his previous inability to finish what he had started. "Now I'm getting congratulations every time I go out.

"You couldn't ask for anything better. I love it."

The Athletics have soared to nine games over the .500 mark for the first time since Aug. 11, 1985, by winning 10 of their last 11 games.

"I find that real encouraging because we're going to hit and pitch better than what we've been doing," LaRussa said.

It would be hard to improve on what Eckersley and Dave Stewart have been doing. A winner in 22 of his last 28 decisions, Stewart is 6-0 in 1988 and telling everyone that he doesn't get any respect, citing his loss to Roger Clemens in last year's Cy Young award voting.

Stewart believes it stems from his 1984 arrest in Los Angeles on a solicitation charge.

"What happened in L.A. that night is still being written about three years later," Stewart said the other day. "Well, I've been pitching good for three years now, so why can't they write about the good things happening in my life?"

How does Don Baylor describe Manager Tom Kelly of the Minnesota Twins, for whom he served as a designated hitter late last year?

"One of the weirdest people I've ever met in baseball."

Troubled by bad chemistry and injuries to shortstop Tony Fernandez and the pitching staff, Toronto Blue Jays Manager Jimy Williams, may not weather a growing crisis.

The likely successor in the event of a change is batting coach Cito Gaston, who would become baseball's third minority manager. The Blue Jays, however, may have to make a quick decision.

Gaston, according to sources, is also being eyed by his former Toronto boss Bobby Cox, who is now general manager of the Atlanta Braves and said to be disenchanted with the work of Manager Chuck Tanner.

In revived discussions of the Dave Winfield-for-Kevin Bass trade, vetoed by Winfield in early April, a reshaped deal would reportedly send Winfield to the Blue Jays, with Jesse Barfield going to the Houston Astros, and Bass then moving to the New York Yankees.

Said an angry Winfield of the new trade reports: "I ain't going nowhere. I'm part of a very good team. They should quit fooling with the chemistry. I know the owner (George Steinbrenner) doesn't like me. Well, I don't like him either."

Said Barfield: "No disrespect to Dave, but I'm only 28 (Winfield is 36). It's not a good deal for Toronto."

Many would disagree, saying that Barfield seems unlikely to repeat his success of 1986, when he hit 40 home runs and drove in 107 runs. He has hit only 11 homers in the last 92 games, including just 2 this year.

"Jesse hasn't deteriorated, he just hasn't made any adjustment (to consistent inside pitching)," General Manager Pat Gillick said. "When you hit 40 home runs one way, you're reluctant to adjust."

There seems to be increased likelihood of a move to St. Petersburg, Fla., by the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox would require approval of 10 of the 14 American League teams, but White Sox co-owner Jerry Reinsdorf apparently believes that would be no problem, telling sources that several clubs have already asked why he is waiting.

The wait seems to be based on a final hope that Illinois Gov. James Thompson can provide a viable blueprint for the structuring and leasing of a new Chicago stadium, the site of which hasn't even been agreed upon.

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