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Poised Turner Feels at Home with Angels : Baseball: Catching prospect has done well in short stint with the big club.

September 13, 1993|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — The situation was grave. Rookie catcher Chris Turner knew it and he knew Mark Langston knew it, too, so he did what was expected and trotted out to the mound.

"I didn't know what to say," said Turner, well aware that his short stint in the majors hardly qualified him as an expert on such tense moments as the eighth inning of a recent game at Anaheim Stadium.

"I think he needed to take a break," Turner said.

A walk to Rickey Henderson, a walk to Devon White, a run-scoring single by Paul Molitor; the Toronto Blue Jays appeared ready to deliver a haymaker to Langston.

Out went Turner. They talked about signs, Langston would say later. The break helped, Langston retired the next three Blue Jays in order, and the Angels won, 4-1.

"He struggled (for) the first three batters, then it was a complete turnaround," Turner said.

Another new face, fresh from a rapid rise through the minor leagues, Turner earned respect and praise from Langston for knowing what to do at the right time. And it didn't hurt that Turner's contributions on Sept. 3 against the Blue Jays also included a double, a single, a run scored and a run batted in. And heading into tonight's game against the Seattle Mariners at Anaheim Stadium, Turner hopes to continue contributing.

From the start, the Angels have been determined to push Turner into the fire. The break-in period lasted exactly four innings. That's how long Turner had to get his bearings on his first day in a major league uniform.

He was relaxing in the visitor's bullpen at Milwaukee's County Stadium on Aug. 27 when the call came from Manager Buck Rodgers.

Get loose, kid, you're going in.

His catching gear hadn't yet arrived from Edmonton, Canada, where he'd left triple-A Vancouver as soon as he got word he'd been called up.

But he responded better than the Angels could have hoped, looking relaxed and comfortable in borrowed gear.

Now, the Angels appear ready to pencil in Turner, 24, as a candidate for their everyday catcher in 1994. He's been that impressive. Either that or the Angel catchers this season have been that mediocre.

Whether he can solve the Angels' catching woes remains to be seen, but so far the results have been pleasing.

"He's done a great job," Langston said. "He's come up and stepped right in and done a great job for us."

Joe Magrane offered a similar assessment after Turner's debut in the second game of a doubleheader at Milwaukee.

"Believe me, he was very, very impressive," Magrane said.

Rodgers was eager to see how Turner, who was playing at the Class-A level last season, would handle the pressure of catching veteran pitchers.

"I know he knows he can catch (Mark) Holzemer and (Phil) Leftwich," Rodgers said. "I wanted him to meet (Chuck) Finley and Langston. I hope there is a long acquaintance there."

The Angels hope Turner will develop into the steady starter they have lacked this season.

Rodgers knew he didn't have a standout behind the plate, so he left spring training with three catchers, hoping one would emerge. It hasn't happened.

Greg Myers, batting .256 with six home runs and 35 RBIs, has caught 67 games.

Ron Tingley, batting .200 with zero homers and 12 RBIs, has caught 34.

John Orton, batting .189 with one homer and four RBIs before being placed on the disabled list July 16 with an injured right elbow, caught 33.

He is not expected to play again this season.

The Angels, it now seems, have simply been waiting for Turner to mature and gain enough experience at triple A to warrant a promotion.

In 90 games at Vancouver, he batted .276 with four homers and 57 RBIs, prompting Whitey Herzog, director of player personnel, to tell Baseball America:

"I haven't seen anybody catch better in the minor leagues this year than Turner."

Ready or not, he's now an Angel and he's batted .294 and driven in eight runs in 10 games.

"Poised" and "impressive," were the words Rodgers used to describe Turner's short tenure with the club.

If Turner is aware of the club's troubles at his position, he's not letting on. For now, he said he's happy to be playing in the big leagues. Next year seems like a long way off.

He can't forget he's only been in the majors for a little more than two weeks.

"It takes a while for a pitcher to get confidence in a catcher," he said. "I just throw some fingers down and he can like (the signs) or not. With any new pitcher and catcher it takes a while (to bond)."

Listening to Turner talk about catching, it's easy to forget that he's only played the position three years.

Tom Kotchman, an Angel minor league manager, watched Turner filling in as Western Kentucky's catcher during the 1991 Sun Belt Conference tournament and knew he'd discovered someone special.

Turner was a good athlete, an all-state quarterback at Warren (Ky.) Central High, and later an All-Sun Belt Conference outfielder at Western Kentucky.

But he always dreamed of catching some day.

When the starter and backup were injured days before the conference tournament, Turner volunteered.

"A lucky break," said Turner, who was the Angels' seventh-round pick in the 1991 free agent draft. "It's worked out so far."

He rocketed through the Angel minor league system, jumping from Class-A Quad City, where he hit .252 last year, to Vancouver this season.

Now, he's zeroing in on a starter's job with the Angels.

"If I can come in and do a good job this last month, I think I'll have a good chance to make the club coming out of spring training," Turner said. "I realize it's the same game, just on a higher level. You have to be on your toes constantly. You can't afford to be lazy at this level."

So far, the Angels like what they've seen of Turner. He's done nothing but reinforce his position as a potential starter next year.

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