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In NL, He's Second to None

April 07, 2002|Ross Newhan

As Barry Bonds was taking a hammer to the major league record book last season, teammate Rich Aurilia was doing a number on the National League book.

The San Francisco Giants' shortstop, profiting from batting second, ahead of Bonds, in Dusty Baker's lineup while also contributing to Bonds' success, actually led all major league shortstops with a .324 average and 206 hits. He also slugged 37 homers to become the first NL shortstop with three consecutive seasons of 20 or more home runs since Ernie Banks, who did it in 1959-61 and is the only NL shortstop to have hit more than 37 in a season.

Because Aurilia finished 11th in most-valuable-player voting and was the NL's All-Star starter at his position, it wouldn't be accurate to say that his career-best season was totally overshadowed by Bonds. Seldom, however, did he have the spotlight to himself--just as his catalytic role in the Giants' season-opening sweep of the Dodgers (he had five hits in three games) tended to be lost amid Bonds' renewed fireworks.

In addition, Aurilia's emergence as one of baseball's most productive shortstops--he is the first to lead NL shortstops in both home runs and runs batted in (97 last year) for three straight seasons since Dave Concepcion in 1978-81--has not been enough to get him classified with the Big Three of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra.

Should he be?

"A few years ago, and certainly before last season, I would have said that those guys are in a class of their own and deserve to be, but I'd like to think now that maybe I do belong in that class," Aurilia said last week in Los Angeles. "It would be an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys because I respect what they've done, but hopefully I'm creating that same respect. I have a lot of confidence after last year and feel I have a bunch of years left to build on what I did."

Last year was not really a breakthrough season because Aurilia had been producing a series of breakthrough seasons, but he definitely took it to a higher level when elevated in the batting order from run-producing spots near the bottom to No. 2, ahead of Bonds.

Aurilia initially opposed the switch, believing he would have to sacrifice some of his RBI focus to take pitches and give up at-bats to advance runners. Instead, his power flourished, but he bristles at the theory that it was strictly because he was seeing more fastballs from pitchers who didn't want to take a chance and walk a batter ahead of Bonds.

"Did I benefit, and do I benefit, from hitting in front of Barry?" Aurilia said. "Of course. But it kind of gets blown out of proportion. I mean, I probably see fastballs when I should see them, on 2-and-0 and 3-and-1 counts when they'd rather pitch to me and hope I get myself out than take a chance on walking me ahead of Barry. But I also see curveballs and split-fingers and everything else. You've still got to hit the ball no matter what they're throwing, and I probably hit half of last year's home runs on breaking pitches.

"I did surprise myself from a power standpoint, but I think that came from maturity, understanding what I can and can't do, and being able to take advantage of mistake pitches. To me, it would be nice, since I'm always hearing how I've benefited from hitting in front of Barry, if maybe it was suggested that Barry has benefited a little from hitting behind me, getting the opportunity to drive in more runs. I think it goes hand in hand."

With Aurilia delivering 206 hits last year, and showing no letup in the first week of the new season, pitchers consistently have to work from a stretch position against Bonds and aren't apt to automatically walk him with a runner already on base.

There were several years when Aurilia--drafted by the Texas Rangers out of St. John's and traded with infielder Desi Wilson to the Giants for pitcher John Burkett in 1994--wondered if he would ever get the chance to start regularly in the major leagues, let alone develop into an All-Star.

Now 30 and in the second year of a three-year, $14.750-million contract, Aurilia had to be what Baker calls the "epitome of patience" as the Giants brought in such experienced shortstops as Shawon Dunston, Jose Vizcaino and Rey Sanchez.

"There was a period of about three years when I was told I was going to be the starting shortstop and it never happened," Aurilia said. "It was frustrating because as a young player you always feel you're ready to play at this level. I can honestly say now I probably wasn't ready to play every day and succeed. The way it's turned out, I wouldn't change a thing."

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