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County : PREVIEW

JetHawks Get Chilly Reception

Baseball: Lancaster fans are happy to see them but the weather isn't cooperating for opener.


LANCASTER — Seattle Mariners' minor leaguers assigned to the Class-A Lancaster JetHawks were warned about the oppressive Antelope Valley heat. So before leaving spring training camp in Peoria, Ariz., they made sure and grabbed some tanning lotion and sunglasses.

They should have packed parkas. The temperature during tonight's opener against the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes at The Hangar could dip into the 30s.

Not even the threat of snow in April, however, can diminish the optimism of a new season. Many of the new JetHawks played for the Mariners' lower Class-A team in Wisconsin last season.

"We're used to this weather," outfielder Mike Burrows said. "We're excited about our team and just want to play."

The JetHawks haven't gotten the cold shoulder from the community. The booster club fed them a welcome meal and 40 or so L.A. County Sheriffs and California Highway Patrol officers were on hand Tuesday for pictures with the players.

JetHawk attendance last season was 298,465 in 70 home games, a dip of 6% from the team's first year in 1996. Nothing brings in the fans like a winning team, and Manager Rick Burleson believes he has one.

"I feel really good about it," he said. "There is a lot of competition on our club for playing time, and we should be very competitive."

Twelve players, Burleson and pitching coach Jim Slaton are back from last season's team that finished 75-66 and was swept in three playoff games by the High Desert Mavericks, who went on to win the California League championship.

Although the goal of minor leaguers is to advance through the farm system, it is not uncommon for players to spend two years in a high Class-A league. The roster could change significantly as players are promoted and demoted.

Pitching should be the team's strength. The starter tonight will be Denny Stark, a 6-foot-2 right-hander who was 6-3 with a 1.97 earned-run average at Wisconsin and had three strong starts with the JetHawks before a sore arm ended his season.

Stark, rated the Mariners' fifth-best prospect by Baseball America, will be joined in the rotation by right-hander Patrick Dunham and left-handers Jason Bond, Julio Ayala and Jordan Zimmerman.

Dunham, 6-5 and 200 pounds, a third-round draft pick in 1997, is making a jump from the Mariners' short-season Class-A affiliate in Everett, Wash., where he was 0-3 but had 39 strikeouts in 28 innings.

Bond is a hard thrower who was 5-7 with a 3.76 earned-run average and struck out 123 in 110 innings with the JetHawks last season.

Ayala, a native of Puerto Rico, was 11-3 at Wisconsin.

Although Zimmerman was a 32nd-round draft choice in 1994 and sat out the '95 and '96 seasons with a back injury, he is rated the Mariners' No. 7 prospect by Baseball America because of a 95-mph fastball.

Slaton will try several closers.

Last season at Wisconsin, left-hander Brian Fitzgerald had 10 saves and a 1.94 ERA, and right-hander Kyle Kennison had six saves and a 2.13 ERA.

Joining them in the bullpen will be five right-handers, four who were JetHawks last season.

The best may be Aaron Scheffer, who was 11-3 with four saves in 37 appearances.

"We have a real good pitching staff with a lot of experience at this level," Scheffer said. "This is a tough park to pitch because there is always wind, but we should do well."

Competition also will be strong in the outfield.

The center fielder probably will be Burrows, a 6-4 left-handed hitter whose .249 batting average at Wisconsin last season is misleading. He had surgery to remove bone spurs in both hands and tailed off after batting .285 and hitting 11 of his 12 homers in the first half.

Matt Sachse, another 6-4 left-handed hitter, batted .268 with 30 extra-base hits at Wisconsin..

Luis Tinoco, a 23-year-old Venezuelan in his seventh season, is coming off an injury that limited him to 43 at-bats with the JetHawks.

The top prospect among infielders probably is 21-year-old shortstop Ramon Vazquez, a left-handed hitter who batted .269 with 38 extra-base hits and 16 stolen bases in 479 at-bats at Wisconsin.

Shortstop-second baseman Joel Ramirez logged 328 at-bats with the JetHawks last season, hitting .280, and third baseman Cirilo Cruz Jr. batted .290 while splitting the season between Wisconsin and Lancaster.

Last season's big surprise was second baseman Jason Regan, who despite his 5-9, 165-pound stature belted 31 homers and 34 doubles at Wisconsin and Lancaster.

Pushing Regan is Adonis Harrison of Muir High in Pasadena, who batted .318 with 39 extra-base hits and 25 stolen bases at Wisconsin.

An intriguing prospect is Brendan Kingman, 24, a free agent signed out of Sidney, Australia, who was among the top hitters in the Australian pro league. Kingman will be the designated hitter frequently and also plays catcher and first base.

Sharing the catching will be Greg Connors, who batted .243 with the JetHawks after a promotion from Everett last season, and Karl Thompson, a former sixth-round draft choice out of Diamond Bar High who spent most of last season in double-A ball.

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