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DOMINGUEZ

On Average, Lieberthal Tops the List

May 09, 1999|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ

Let's see if you are paying attention:

The catcher with the best batting average in the major leagues is A) Mike Piazza, B) Javy Lopez, C) Ivan Rodriguez, D) Jason Kendall or E) Mike Lieberthal.

Belt out a hearty "Yahtzee!" and repeat five times "I'm the man"--or woman, where applicable--if you chose E.

Yes, Lieberthal's .356 clip with the Philadelphia Phillies not only tops all catchers, but it's the seventh-best mark in the National League and 10th-best in baseball.

"I've been seeing the ball great all season," Lieberthal said.

Such prosperity in pro ball is new to Lieberthal, the Southern Section Division 5-A player of the year in 1990, his senior season at Westlake High.

That year, Lieberthal batted .448 with 13 home runs and 43 runs batted in, numbers that convinced the Phillies to snatch him with the third pick in the June draft.

But his career high of .305 came in 1991 at Class A Spartanburg in the South Atlantic League and his best with the Phillies as a regular was .256 in 86 games last season.

Lieberthal is not making excuses, but the wear and tear on catchers often undermines their hitting, making those who can produce at the plate a hot commodity.

"There's so much to worry about [as a catcher]," Lieberthal said. "The manager mainly wants you to call a great game and throw out guys and block balls. Really, defense is your No. 1 priority."

The hitting breakthrough for Lieberthal started in spring training, when he batted a team-high .474 with eight doubles, four home runs and 19 RBIs. It carried into the season, although Lieberthal says he's just getting by.

"Honestly, I really haven't felt that good at the plate," Lieberthal said. "My swing has been a little bit long. I'm trying to shorten my swing, hit more line drives and go to the opposite field."

The adjustment worked just fine in Philadelphia's 11-1 victory over San Diego on Wednesday, when Lieberthal tied a career single-game high with four hits, including a home run.

Lieberthal's father, Dennis, a scout for the Detroit Tigers, is watching closely but staying tight-lipped.

"I don't like to say anything," he said. "I'm afraid I'll jinx him."

Lieberthal was batting .524 against left-handers, tops in the league, before hitting two home runs against Brian Bohanon of the Colorado Rockies on Saturday. Lieberthal has four homers.

But hitter-friendly Coors Field has its drawbacks, Lieberthal said.

"It's always long innings when I'm catching," he said.

*

It wasn't a good week for pitchers Javier Delahoya and Josh Towers of the double-A Bowie Baysox, the Baltimore Orioles' affiliate in the Eastern League.

Delahoya (4-1), a former Grant standout, allowed four runs in four innings and lost to Harrisburg, 7-3, on Tuesday. He had a seven-game winning streak dating to Aug. 24, 1998.

Towers (3-1), from Hueneme and Oxnard College, lost to Harrisburg, 5-3, on Wednesday after giving up nine hits and five runs in seven innings.

He has the only shutout in the league this season, a 3-0 victory over Altoona on April 30. Towers allowed eight hits, struck out five and walked none.

*

Former Notre Dame standout Ryan Stromsborg got off to a quick start in his return last week to double-A Knoxville, the Toronto Blue Jays' team in the Southern League.

Stromsborg, an outfielder, had a home run and three RBIs for Knoxville on Tuesday.

He was promoted from Class A Dunedin in the Florida State League, where he was batting .224. Last season, Stromsborg batted .237 at Knoxville before ending the season at Dunedin.

*

Around the horn . . .

Nashville (Pirates) catcher Tim Laker (Simi Valley High, Oxnard College) is fourth in batting in the Pacific Coast League at .384 and Calgary (White Sox) shortstop Kevin Millar (Hart) is fifth at .366. . . . Jacksonville (Tigers) outfielder Kurt Airoso (Cal State Northridge) is ninth in the Southern League at .325. He's tied with teammate Chris Wakeland for the league lead in hits with 37.

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