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August 09, 1993|MIKE DiGIOVANNA

Matt Luke worked hard in the weight room for the third consecutive winter, pumping up from a 6-foot-5, 190-pound senior at El Dorado High School in 1989 to a 225-pound minor leaguer.

He had a good spring training and went head-first into his second season in the New York Yankees' farm system, fully expecting to take Class-A Greensboro, N.C., by storm.

But Hurricane Matt fizzled out once it hit the Carolinas.

Luke struggled through the first month of the season, batting .215 with three home runs and 11 runs batted in.

"You have a lot of off-season to think about things, and I had high expectations for this year," said Luke, who helped El Dorado win the Southern Section 5-A championship in 1989 and Cal reach the College World Series in 1992. "I came here trying to do too much too quickly. I wanted to hit 20 home runs the first month. I put too much pressure on myself."

Luke eventually settled into a groove at Greensboro, lifting his average to .276 by the end of June. Then he hit a jet stream in July, batting .371 with eight homers and 29 RBIs and earning Topps South Atlantic League player of the month honors.

His present season totals--.294 with 27 doubles, 17 homers and 71 RBIs--rate him ninth in the league in batting, second in homers and fourth in RBIs.

"Every month I've been getting a little more comfortable, a little better, a little more relaxed," said Luke, a 22-year-old left fielder. "I also changed my stroke a bit. I raised my hands, I don't crouch as much, and that has given me more of a power base. I'm driving the ball more."

The left-handed hitting Luke was never much of a power hitter. Though he hit three home runs in an NCAA regional game against George Mason in 1992, he had only 10 during that junior season at Cal and only two last season at Oneonta, N.Y., the Yankees' short-season, Class-A affiliate.

But he's no stringy high school kid anymore, and with results in the weight room have come higher--and longer--expectations in the batter's box.

"People see my size and expect power," said Luke, an eighth-round draft pick in 1992. "If you don't put up big numbers, you take a lot of heat. But I expect to hit more homers every season. Every year I come back stronger and know more about the game and myself. I think I'm a few years away from my peak performance."

Luke also thinks he's at least one season away from a promotion. Greensboro is the lower of the Yankees' two full-season Class-A teams, and the Hornets won the Northern Division first half, qualifying for the South Atlantic League playoffs. Luke thinks the organization wants to keep the team together for the post-season.

The Yankees also are known to move players slowly through their system.

"You have to put up outrageous numbers (to get a promotion)," Luke said. "They want you to dominate a full season before they move you up. We had a guy, Nick Delvecchio, hit 15 homers in the first two months, and he's still here. I don't necessarily agree with that philosophy, but that's how the Yankees operate."


Home alone: Playing on a high school team that included future first-round picks Phil Nevin and Pete Janicki, it was easy to overlook Luke at El Dorado. But Luke literally stole the show in the Golden Hawks' 2-0 victory over Long Beach Millikan in the 1989 Southern Section 5-A championship game at Dodger Stadium.

In a scoreless tie, Luke led off the top of the fifth inning with a bunt single, was sacrificed to second and reached third on an infield grounder. With left-hander Todd Taylor working from a full windup and No. 9 hitter Crosby Spencer at the plate, El Dorado Coach Steve Gullotti told Luke to see how far he could get down the line.

"The adrenaline was pumping, I started down the line and no one said anything," Luke recalled. "He started his windup and I just went."

Spencer ducked under the pitch, and Luke somehow avoided the catcher's tag. El Dorado had a 1-0 lead and went on to a 2-0 victory.

"Baseball is a spur-of-the-moment game," Luke said. "Sometimes it's there, sometimes it isn't. Luckily for El Dorado, that time I was safe."

Was that the only time Luke had stolen home?

"It was the only time I've ever been safe stealing home," he said.


Two thumbs up: Former Tustin High standout Shawn Green has drawn rave reviews in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization, despite having both of his minor league seasons slowed by thumb injuries.

Green, the 16th overall pick in the 1991 draft, broke his left thumb while breaking up a double play last season for Class-A Dunedin, Fla., an injury that sidelined the outfielder five weeks.

Then in June, Green, playing at double-A Knoxville, broke his right thumb diving for a fly ball and sat out six weeks. He returned to action July 27 and is now batting .298 with three homers and 26 RBIs. He hit .273 with 21 doubles and 49 RBIs at Dunedin last season.

"I guess I've just had some bad luck," Green said. "But I haven't had any problems with the thumbs after the injuries. Hopefully I'll get this out of the way now."


Tough break: Former Orange Coast College and Cal State Long Beach first baseman Scott Talanoa, who had been having a most-valuable-player type season for the Class-A Beloit (Wis.) Brewers, suffered a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury July 25.

Talanoa, who hit .287 with a Midwest League-leading 25 home runs and 66 RBIs in 87 games, had been playing with a sore right ankle, but strained the tendon while running out a ground ball. A Brewer official said Talanoa is expected to fully recover for next season.

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