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Karros, Green Hold Key for Sheffield

April 03, 2001|ROSS NEWHAN

In the context of a 162-game season, it doesn't matter how much respect Gary Sheffield gets from the fans--or doesn't get.

What matters for the Dodgers is how much respect he gets from opposing pitchers. What matters is how productive Shawn Green and Eric Karros are batting behind him.

Opening day at Dodger Stadium seemed to provide a microcosm of the cautious manner in which pitchers will continue to work Sheffield in the new season and how important it will be for Green and Karros to take advantage of their run-producing opportunities in a lineup devoid of Adrian Beltre and the departed Todd Hundley.

Neither Green nor Karros responded Monday when the Dodgers still managed to defeat the Milwaukee Brewers, 1-0, as Chan Ho Park picked up where he left off last year and the enigmatic Sheffield slugged a sixth-inning home run that turned his introductory boos to resounding cheers from a sellout crowd of 53,154, documenting the front-running and fickle tendencies of most fans.

As Sheffield went from March distraction to April detonation, his towering drive to dead center even resulting in a dugout curtain call from his worshiping fans, there was a suspicion that Chairman Bob Daly must have asked one of his former movie pals to write the opening script--it was that perfect and surreal.

The problem is, the Dodgers can't be expected to win every game, 1-0, even if Park and his rotation colleagues pitch up to expectations.

The Dodgers will need more than the five hits they collected Monday when Sheffield reached base all four times he came to the plate, including two walks, a single and the decisive home run.

Last year, while slugging 43 homers and driving in 109 runs, Sheffield walked 101 times, as he did in his first season with the Dodgers.

He could top that total this year unless Green and Karros provide opposing pitchers with a reason to think twice.

"I think they're very well aware of that," Manager Jim Tracy said of his fourth and fifth hitters. "There's no doubt in my mind that Green and Karros will have their day if they don't pitch to Gary.

"I like the way our lineup is constituted. I mean, I feel very confident when Shawn, Eric and [third baseman] Chris Donnels have the bat in their hands."

Tracy, of course, has no alternative but to feel that way. Beltre isn't expected back until mid-May at the earliest, and Green and Karros are it in the middle of the lineup.

Green hit fourth against right-handed starter Jamey Wright on Monday, while Karros will bat fourth against left-hander Randy Johnson when the Dodgers open a three-game series with the Arizona Diamondbacks tonight.

Green and Karros recognize their responsibility batting behind Sheffield, but both face a comeback season of sorts.

Karros closed with his typical 31 homers and 106 runs batted in last year but hit .232 in the second half with six homers and 36 RBI.

Green, who had hit 42 homers and drove in 123 runs in his last season with the Toronto Blue Jays, hit 24 homers, drove in 99 runs and batted .269 in his Dodger debut, battling an adjustment to a new league and the pressure of playing at home while trying to justify an $84-million contract.

"I don't think I swung the bat well at any time last year," he said Monday. "I was jumping at pitches, trying to hit too many home runs. This is the one sport where it's a detriment to try too hard, to be too keyed up. I'm now confident with the work I've done on my swing. I feel it's back to the way it was in Toronto, and I'm not going to let what I do one day affect me the next.

"On any team, the middle of the lineup has to be productive, and that's a big key for this team. Eric and I are going to have a lot of opportunities, and we've got to be patient. We've got to try and hit the ball hard without trying to do too much."

Green left two close friends--Carlos Delgado and Alex Gonzalez--when he left the Blue Jays, but his recent engagement to Lindsay Bear, who also lives in Newport Beach, may help fill a void. For Karros, a tender back may have played into his disappointing second half, although he insisted again Monday it was not a factor.

"I had a bad second half," he said. "There was no rhyme or reason for it, but there is no reason to think I won't be successful this year. It's no secret that everybody who bats around Gary has to do their job. We're going to have opportunities, but then everybody in the lineup has to do their job as well."

The more Sheffield walks, the more fastballs Green and Karros should see. Sheffield walked twice on a total of nine pitches Monday. He led off the sixth in a scoreless game and Wright was forced to pitch to him. The count was 0 and 1 when he hit the bomb. Green and Karros each drew a walk but were otherwise hitless, failing to convert opportunities. One game doesn't make a season, but it can provide insight into what Tracy described as his lineup's collective imperative.

One run isn't always going to be enough, and the ever-popular Sheffield, of course, isn't always going to get even that one pitch that will enable him to provide it.

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