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WORLD SERIES | Diane Pucin

Rodriguez Has Right Approach on Bonds

October 21, 2002|Diane Pucin

The child led them.

It was the 20-year-old who scuffed at the dirt with his feet, as if he were a bull looking at the red cape. Francisco Rodriguez didn't play games with Barry Bonds. Rodriguez didn't nibble at the corners or try to paint wavy lines with a soft brush. Rodriguez threw and threw hard, one pitch to Bonds.

Bonds swung. He couldn't help himself, and Bonds hit the ball, hard. But on the ground. Sharply. But at Scott Spiezio. With authority but into a quick and satisfying out.

And the looks on the faces of the Angels in the dugout, the smiles and grins, the high fives and whoops and hollers, it made a difference that out did, that pitch did, that decisiveness did, that fearlessness did.

Do some math.

In the three innings when Bonds walked Sunday night -- the second, the third and the fifth -- the Giants scored nine runs. In the two innings when Bonds hit, they scored one.

Yes, the one was a home run, a monster home run, the longest and hardest ball, Tim Salmon said, that he had ever seen hit. But it came with two out, with the bases empty, in the top of the ninth, when the Angels were leading by two runs. And closer Troy Percival grooved one, right down the middle, hard as can be. So the ball went very far, very fast. And it didn't matter.

It is the walks that play on minds, make heads spin, make pitching harder.

If you routinely put a man on base, it makes everything else you do harder. It makes playing defense trickier, it makes your pitcher think more, worry more, have more things on his mind.

Isn't the World Series supposed to be your best against their best? Your best hitter against their best pitcher? And the other way around?

With apologies to Keyshawn Johnson, a fine man with a USC education, which means he must be right, just pitch Barry the damn ball.

"Look," Percival said after the most nail-biting, heart-pounding, stomach-churning, gut-wrenching, maddening, exhilarating, horrifying, wonderful baseball game in a very long time, "you don't want to start a rally with a walk. You saw what happened in the second inning. You don't want to do that."

The second inning, when Bonds led off with a walk, just after the Angels had scored five in the bottom of the first and had brought the Angel fans, who were desperate for something to go crazy over, to a frenzy. And then Bonds was on first, grinning as if he knew something, hopping back and forth as if he expected to soon be on the run.

And he was. Off to third on a single by J.T. Snow and trotting home on Reggie Sanders' home run, which was followed by a David Bell home run, which was followed by too many runs to compute in this game, too much momentum changing, and very nearly a Series-killing loss.

"Look," Angel pitcher Jarrod Washburn said, "as an athlete you want the greatest challenges possible and pitching to Barry Bonds is the greatest athletic challenge I can imagine. I want that challenge. Me, personally, Mike Scioscia is going to have to come out and tell me not to pitch to him. My opinion is that if he hits a home run off me, good for him. If I get him out, good for me. But one home run is one home run. A walk, that can start lots of other stuff."

There may be times to walk a guy, any guy. There may be more times to walk Bonds. But don't do it as a routine. And don't do it because you are being too careful and too afraid. Because when you start nibbling, start aiming instead of pitching, then it becomes hard to switch gears and become aggressive to Benito Santiago or Snow or Sanders or Jeff Kent or Bell and they will hit home runs too and doubles and singles and finish rallies that Bonds started with the simple walk.

It's better not to groove it. Percival grooved it and grinned. "I supplied most of the power," Percival said. "But I did my job. I told myself I'd go hard after the first two guys and get them and go hard after Barry and if Barry got me, I'd go hard after the next guy."

So that's what he did. Percival got Rich Aurilia to fly out to Garret Anderson. It took two pitches. He got Kent to fly out to Anderson after working an 0-and-2 count. Bonds hit Percival's second fastball over and out so the score was 11-10 instead of 11-9. And it took Percival four fastballs to get Santiago to pop out to second baseman Adam Kennedy. If Percival walks Bonds, then he's thinking. What if Santiago hits it out next? Score is tied. Or what if Santiago singles and Snow comes up with two guys on? What if? What if? A pitcher can't do his job while he's thinking "What if?"

It's not easy pitching in the World Series. It's much harder if Bonds is always standing on first base. Smiling.

Rodriguez said he never got nervous, that he was excited and not afraid, that he enjoyed pitching to Bonds. "It felt good," Rodriguez said. "Better to pitch him than to walk him."

The sixth inning, when Rodriguez went hard after Aurilia, then Kent and most importantly, Bonds, when he struck out Aurilia and Kent and got Bonds to hit that first pitch to Spiezio, it was when the game turned the Angels' way.

Rodriguez pitched to Bonds. Like everybody should.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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