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IN THE GROOVE : Though He's a Reluctant Leadoff Hitter, White Helps Stabilize Angel Outfield and Lead Team's Resurgence

July 22, 1988|JOHN WEYLER | Times Staff Writer

It's probably safe to say that no one was as ecstatic to have Devon White return to center field as Angel Manager Cookie Rojas was. In a span of five weeks, Rojas had seen enough dropped fly balls, missed cut-off men, wrong-base throws, near-collisions and assorted botched fielding plays to last a lifetime.

His outfield auditioned for the blooper segment of "This Week in Baseball" on a nightly basis. White, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee May 7, was welcomed back by almost everyone in the organization, of course.

But there was at least one player who may have been a little sad to see White return. This guy knew that his earned-run average probably would improve, but the same wouldn't be true of his earning potential. White's return meant the end of his chances to win the lottery.

Not the California Lottery, though.

Reliever Greg Minton said, "With the outfield we had there for a while, the guys in the bullpen made up a little lottery to see which position would make the first error in which inning. We gave it up when Devo came back. He covers from the Big A (the insignia on the wall in right field) to the Big A (in left)."

Rojas, of course, is concerned only with winning baseball games, and he figures it's no coincidence that since White came back June 10, the Angels have gone 23-13 and have moved from seventh place to fourth place in the American League West.

Ask Rojas about his team's resurgence, and he'll list a number of factors. But first--always first--he talks about White.

"I think getting Devo White back was the key element," Rojas said. "He stabilized our outfield, and that is a very key part."

After a rookie season in 1987 in which he had 24 home runs, 103 runs scored and 87 RBIs, White isn't content with just running down line drives. He expects to hit some, too.

Understandably, his timing was off when he first got back in the lineup. But he has been in a nice groove lately, a hot streak that coincides with Rojas' decision to move him into the No. 1 spot in the order on July 7.

In 11 games as the Angels' leadoff hitter, White has six multiple-hit games and has scored 10 runs, driven in 9 and hit two homers. More important, the Angels are 8-3.

Rojas winks.

White winces.

"If we continue to win and I'm doing the job at leadoff, then so be it," White conceded curtly, "but if it was up to me . . . "

"I'd rather strike out on a ball in the dirt and run to first than walk. I hate to walk."

--Devon White, 1987

Now, there's a guy you'd like to have batting leadoff.

The Angels, of course, have a tradition of unorthodox leadoff hitters.

Recently there was Brian Downing, who has just two of the attributes coveted in a leadoff man: he walks a lot and his on-base percentage is high.

And there was Gary Pettis, the epitome of a No. 1 man with a couple of vital exceptions: He struck out more often than most power hitters and, when he did make contact, he seldom managed to get on base.

Now, meet Mr. White. The Angels' newest--and most reluctant--leadoff batter.

Downing calls White the "leadoff man of the month." Apparently, the Angel designated hitter sees the move as temporary, too.

"It's going to be a period of adjustment for him," Downing said. "It was a big adjustment for me, and I had 5,000 major league at-bats under my belt. We need a leadoff hitter who works a pitcher, because we swing the bat right away a lot.

"With the makeup of this club, I would try to take two dozen pitches a game. But Devo's got to play his style. He'll be in deep trouble if he tries to change his style overnight."

There's not much chance of that happening. Listen to White:

"I'm aggressive. I'm a free swinger. I like to put the ball in play. Walking is boring, and I'm too aggressive to take four balls."

White has the statistics to prove it. He has walked just 13 times this season, fewer than anyone on the team with more than 83 at-bats. White has 241 at-bats.

None of this talk fazes Rojas.

"The thing is, he's done a very good job," Rojas said, smiling with the confidence of a man who knows that the bottom line bears out his side of an argument. "He's seeing a lot more fastballs, and the increased number of at-bats is helping him get his average up faster.

"I think Devon White will lead the league in hitting some day. And I think he can become a great leadoff hitter. He's a switch-hitter, and he's got great speed."

Rojas also contends that batting in the top spot has helped White become a better hitter, forcing him to be just a tad more selective and think about bunting once in a while.

"It's paid off for him already," Rojas said. "He'll always be a free swinger, and that's fine, but he's showing a little more discipline."

White sits in front of his locker and listens to Rojas' conclusions about how he has been helped by this foray into the first position. He frowns in thought. Well, has this dose of discipline, however small, made him a better hitter?

"I guess it's a possibility," he said. But he doesn't sound convinced.

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