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Not Even Piazza Is Escaping Criticism : Dodgers: Catcher's defense an issue after Phillies' 9-4 victory.


PHILADELPHIA — It's the ominous secret being whispered throughout the Dodger clubhouse. No one says anything publicly. No one wants to hurt anyone's feelings. Besides, you're talking about the greatest hitting catcher in all of baseball.

Yet, despite all-star catcher Mike Piazza's heroics, which included two more home runs Saturday, and five in his last six games, Piazza is being ridiculed ever so quietly for his pitch selection and defense.

Sure, it's silly, if not absurd, to blame Piazza for the Dodgers' 9-4 defeat to the Philadelphia Phillies in front of a paid crowd of 30,126 at Veterans Stadium.

It was starter Ismael Valdes, not Piazza, who was shelled during the Phillies' eight-run, fourth inning. It was the most runs given up by the Dodgers in one inning since Sept. 3, 1975, when they yielded 10 runs to the Cincinnati Reds, also in the fourth.

It was right fielder Raul Mondesi, not Piazza, who struck out in all four of his plate appearances. It's the first time in Mondesi's career, spanning 255 games, that he struck out four times in a game.

It was Valdes' blunder and third baseman Tim Wallach's error, not Piazza, that set up the Phillies' eight-run, eight-hit, and 14-batter inning that blew open the game.

And the entire Dodger team, not Piazza, can take credit in fumbling away an opportunity to leave the pack in the National League West. The Dodgers (59-54), losing their third consecutive game and seventh in the last 10 games, remain just half a game in front of the slumping Colorado Rockies in the West and half a game ahead of the Phillies in the wild-card race.

But now that the Phillies have scored 33 runs in the last three games, including 26 runs in games started by Hideo Nomo and Valdes, Piazza says he is hearing the criticism. The Dodgers, in fact, are considering bringing roving instructor Mike Scioscia to Los Angeles next week to assist Piazza.

"Listen, I know there are times when I'm not great behind the plate," said Piazza, who's batting .359 and becomes eligible for the batting title tonight. "You can't argue with that. But it's a Catch-22. It's fatiguing being behind the plate every game, but because of my bat, they can't afford to take me out of the lineup too often.

"That's not an apology, that's just a fact. I mean, you keep hearing that they want to move me to a different position one day, and that would be fine. It just depends on what the Dodgers have in my mind for my future.

"If they want to keep me in the organization, they'll probably do it. But whatever they do is fine. I think I'm a good enough catcher where I'm going to block balls, and I could be an all-star catcher for the next five years, but that's always over-shadowed by my hitting."

Piazza, who committed an error in his third consecutive game when he dropped a low throw from Jose Offerman in the fourth, had no explanation for the Phillie outburst. Valdes (11-8), who had won three consecutive starts and six of his last seven starts, also had no answers.

"I don't know what happened," said Valdes, who yielded nine hits and eight runs (four earned) in four innings. "They were hitting everything: breaking balls, change-ups, fastballs inside, fastballs outside . . . everything."

This is the same team that on Friday night didn't even bother to brush back Phillie starter Jeff Juden after his grand slam. Juden pranced around the bases during his home-run trot, bowed to the crowd in his next at-bat, and then swung with all of his might the next time he batted.

"He should have gone down," one Dodger veteran said. "You can't let a pitcher show you up like that."

The entire Phillie team has not been brushed off the plate once this series. Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda, who called off batting practice and had a team meeting before the game to tell his players they've been lax in concentration, now may have to call another meeting. This time, to instruct his pitchers to brush hitters off the plate.


Colorado blows a 3-0 lead in the ninth inning and misses a chance to regain first place in the National League West. C5

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