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Crossed Signals

American League Pitchers Will Get to Have Bats in Their Hands for Games in National League Parks

March 28, 1997|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — When somebody asked Manager Terry Collins about worst-case scenarios in relationship to interleague play early this spring, it's doubtful he envisioned one of his relievers letting loose of a bat that ended up in the face of his best starter during a pitchers' batting-practice session.

But then Collins hasn't been with the Angels that long, has he?

The Angels will play 16 games against National League West teams this season, eight of them in National League ballparks where there will be no designated hitter. So Angel pitchers will have to step in the batter's box, which figures to be a safer place than Chuck Finley's spot too close to a mesh batting cage when Mike James' bat slipped out of his hands.

Finley ended up with a broken eye-socket bone and 19 stitches.

Some AL clubs are virtually ignoring those few pitcher at-bats, fearing that preparing for them could be more detrimental than not (See Finley's face). But not the Angels. They figure those eight games could mean the difference between the playoffs and another fall spent at home in front of the big-screen watching somebody else.

"If we have one pitcher do one little thing with the bat that helps us win a game, then it's worth it," Collins said, referring to his pitchers taking batting practice, not Finley's injury.

Let's see, if Angel pitchers had been allowed to drive in the winning runs in eight games last year, the team would have only been four games under .500. OK, the Angels figure they need every edge and are working diligently to improve as batsmen.

"You probably won't get more than a dozen at-bats and that's only if the rotation works out right and you pitch pretty well," Finley said, "but you never know. One of those at-bats could mean the difference in the game, and one game has been known to make or break a team in the standings at the end of the season."

One might think this could actually be fun for some of these guys like Finley who haven't felt the thrill of knocking in a run or getting high fives after crossing the plate since they were in college.

It's a chance to step out of the box, twirl the bat, adjust the tension on your batting glove straps, knock the dirt out of your cleats . . . make the other guy wait for a change. Then, who knows? Take a wild swing and maybe something good will happen. Heck, even Sandy Koufax got a hit or two every season.

And nobody is expecting much, are they?

"There are a lot more expectations that some people might think," Finley said. "Our manager has already told us that he expects us to be able to bunt and do the other little things that will keep us in a game. And if we can't, he'll have no choice but to yank us out in a pinch-hit situation."

Left-hander Allen Watson, who ranked fifth among college designated hitters in 1991 while at the New York Institute of Technology, knows firsthand the value of a good-hitting pitcher. He hit .417 in 1995 with St. Louis.

"I don't think people realize how much you can help yourself," he said. "Say you come up late in a game trailing, 2-1, with a couple of guys on base. You can turn a loss into a no-decision or win in a hurry. A couple of good swings can make a noticeable impact on your record at the end of the season. "Plus, it's fun and it makes you feel more a part of the game. But running the bases can take a lot out of you, so now that I'm in the American League, I'm hoping I'll be stronger and able to stay in the game for more innings."

Angel pitchers have two goals during interleague play this season. 1. Do help yourself with the bat. 2. Don't hurt yourself if you do get on base.

Base-running faux pas can be embarrassing and extremely painful. Collins, while in the Dodger organization in the 1980s, saw a bright young prospect's career come to an abrupt end. Rich Rodas, who Collins says "would have pitched for a long time in the big leagues," destroyed his shoulder while diving back into second on a pickoff play. He never pitched again.

"I'm not asking them to steal bases," Collins said, "I'm only asking that they know how to use the bag to make a turn and know how to slide. We're stressing the fact that they should always slide if there's any doubt. Injuries happen when you try to stop or when you're indecisive and slide too late."

The coaching staff is planning more base-running clinics for early June, before Angel pitchers make their debut in the batter's box June 17-18 at Dodger Stadium.

Two weeks later, they get their first up-close- and-hopefully-not- too-humiliating look at Colorado's Coors Field, where the three pitchers in the rotation who will miss the two-game series with the Rockies will undoubtedly be celebrating their good fortune.

It's a place--Watson knows all too well--that can send your earned-run average soaring into thin air.

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