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Ashley Is Right Man Hitting at Right Time

Baseball: His pinch-hit homer off Smoltz in the seventh inning breaks an 0-for-23 slump against right-handers and gives L.A. a 2-1 victory.

August 03, 1996|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dodger outfielder Billy Ashley couldn't help but feel a bit envious this week when he heard that two of his teammates were headed to Detroit for center fielder Chad Curtis.

He would have relished the chance to be tapped on the shoulder, called into the front office and told that he will be the Tigers' everyday left fielder.

Instead, Detroit expressed no interest, and Ashley was left understanding he probably will be spending the rest of the season on the Dodger bench.

He may have changed his fate with one swing of the bat Friday in the Dodgers' 2-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves in front of a paid crowd of 49,012 at Dodger Stadium.

Ashley's leadoff pinch-hit home run off Atlanta starter John Smoltz in the seventh inning snapped a 1-1 tie, provided reliever Scott Radinsky with his first National League victory and Mark Guthrie pitched the final two innings for his first National League save. The victory allowed the Dodgers [58-52], who have defeated the Braves seven of the 10 times they have played this season, to remain half a game behind the division-leading San Diego Padres.

"The fact that I'm a pinch-hitter," Ashley said, "is not something I want to do. I still want to play every day. But I have to do what the Dodgers want, and what they want out of me.

"When opportunities come, you just have to take advantage of them.

"So I just took a little advantage of it."

Ashley, the hero last Saturday with a pinch-hit homer off Billy Wagner of the Houston Astros, was summoned to lead off the seventh for reliever Scott Radinsky. Who can blame even the ardent Dodger fan for believing it was a mismatch?

Smoltz (17-6) leads the major leagues in wins and struck out Mike Piazza and Eric Karros five times alone among his 12 strikeouts. He is the heavy favorite to win the Cy Young award.

Oh yes, and one other thing:

Ashley, a right-handed hitter, had not had a hit off a right-handed pitcher the entire season, going 0 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

"I was surprised that I was the first pinch-hitter off the bench," Ashley conceded, "especially in that situation, leading off."

Yet, Manager Bill Russell looked at his statistics sheet in the dugout and realized that Ashley actually was hitting .333 (two for six) off Smoltz in his career, with three walks. Besides, he was due, wasn't he?

"I decided to take a chance," Russell said. "I was thinking, 'Why not? Maybe he'll hit a home run off him.' And he did."

Ashley watched Smoltz fall behind 2-and-0, and figured he had no choice but to throw a fastball. Smoltz fired. Ashley swung, and the ball was sent 416 feet into the foggy night for his third pinch-hit home run of the season.

"I just got enough of it to go out," Ashley said. "I was running pretty hard. I didn't think it was going."

If that wasn't painful enough for Smoltz, he was hit in the left wrist in the eighth inning by a liner hit by Juan Castro. The original diagnosis was a severe bruise, but Smoltz went for X-rays at Centinela Medical Center.

"It's severely bruised, although I didn't think so when it happened," Smoltz said. "Tough game all-around, although it was one of the best games I think I pitched all year."

Ashley's homer ended a brilliant pitching duel between Chan Ho Park and Smoltz. Smoltz found himself in trouble in each of the first four innings, but escaped until Eric Karros' two-out, run-scoring single in the fifth. The Dodger outburst also included a single by Mike Piazza that snapped an 0-for-19 slump, longest of his career.

The Dodgers are hoping that the hit could help end Piazza's drought. He has gone 56 at-bats without a home run, 44 at-bats without an RBI and has one hit in his last 21 at-bats.

Piazza's frustrations became overwhelming Thursday night when he stormed up the runway, headed into the clubhouse and did a little redecorating. The Dodgers needed a new water cooler in the clubhouse anyway, and the clubhouse mailbox needed a paint job.

"He's such an intense guy," Russell said. "He just had to let off some steam. You can tell he's fighting himself. He's going through one of those streaks where he's not getting any hits. But you hate to take him out of the lineup because he can change the complexion of the game.

"He's a guy you never want to take out of the lineup, but you have to be realistic."

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