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Early Sign Points to Mondesi's Fast Start

May 13, 1999|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Davey Johnson had been the Dodger manager for less than nine full innings of the regular season.

But he had done his homework. He knew the dos and don'ts.

It was opening day at Dodger Stadium. With two out in the ninth inning, two men aboard and the Dodgers down, 6-3, outfielder Raul Mondesi stood at home plate. Arizona Diamondback reliever Gregg Olson had fallen behind 3-0 on Mondesi.

Johnson knew full well that Mondesi's biggest weakness, his only real weakness, is his tendency to go after bad pitches. His lack of patience at the plate is what has kept him, in the opinion of many, from fulfilling his potential, from making that leap from good ballplayer to great ballplayer.

So Johnson didn't have to be told that you don't leave a decision on whether to swing at a 3-0 pitch up to Mondesi, especially in such a crucial situation.

But on that opening day, Johnson, the new man in the dugout, decided to take a new approach with Mondesi.

He flashed the green light. And Mondesi has been going ever since.

Mondesi saw a pitch he liked and smashed it into the seats in left field to tie the score. He homered again in the 11th inning to win the game.

Mondesi has since shown that his hot start was no fluke. Two home runs in Monday night's game and two more Tuesday propelled him into the major league lead with 13.

What has happened to put Mondesi, who has never hit more than 30 home runs in a season, at nearly half that total in 34 games?

Dodger coach Manny Mota, who knows Mondesi better than anyone in a Dodger uniform, thinks it all started with that sign from Johnson.

"That gave him confidence," Mota said. "The fact that the manager let him hit 3-0 was big for him."

Since then, Mota has seen a new level of patience in the seven-year veteran.

"I know Mondy in and out," Mota said. "He is very selective now. He is not chasing too many bad pitches. I tell him, 'If the pitcher wants to walk you, take a walk. Let the man behind you drive the runs in.' "

Mondesi doesn't disagree with any of that.

"I have a lot of confidence now," he said. "And I am more patient. I remember a few years ago [former Dodger hitting coach] Reggie Smith told me that if I hit only strikes, I would hit .350."

So what took him so long to follow the advice?

"He's still growing, still learning," Mota said.

When reporters first approached Mondesi on Wednesday night in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse to talk about his hot streak, he waved them off.

"Every time I say something in the newspapers," he said, "I go 0 for 15. I want to be quiet."

That won't be easy as long as he continues to make so much noise with his bat.

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