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Mound follies a universal affliction BUSTER ON BASEBALL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A major-league general manager lamented the performance of his pitching staff the other day. The pitchers are terrible, he was saying. Can't get anybody out, he was saying. This team stinks.

"But I picked up the paper the next day and I'm looking at the box scores and everybody is getting beat up," he said. "Our relievers are terrible, but so are everyone else's."

Just about. The Orioles are one of six American League teams surrendering more than five runs per nine innings, and over in the National League, where teams don't use the designated hitter and don't score as many runs, just five teams had ERAs under four runs per game.

Orioles manager Phil Regan had predicted as much a week into spring training. The starting pitchers, he said then, would be limited to four and five innings in their first start or two, and that would mean a lot more runs.

The reason being that because the starters -- theoretically, some of the better pitchers on the team -- aren't on the mound, more innings are being absorbed by more mediocre or poor pitchers. Fewer innings being thrown by the No. 1 and No. 2 starters, more by the No. 12 or No. 13 pitchers on the staff.

Let the feast begin, even with the clubs that were once thought to have good pitching, such as the Chicago White Sox.

"Never seen anything like this," said White Sox outfielder Tim Raines. "And I certainly don't understand it."

Funny. No one's even mentioned the ball being juiced this year, maybe wound a little tighter. Everybody's blaming the shortened spring and the labor negotiators, Bud Selig and Donald Fehr.

On the bandwagon we go.

Gwynn's been 'brutal'

Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn is so good at what he does that he often tells teammates exactly what opposing pitchers are going to throw him and where in the strike zone they'll deliver the ball an inning or two before each at-bat.

He was hitting a league-high .486 after Thursday's games, and since the beginning of the 1994 season, he has 181 hits in 501 at-bats. That's a .401 average.

And yet, Gwynn sounds like the kid you hated in high school who complained when he scored a 98 on an exam.

"It's weird how things happen," Gwynn said last week in Colorado. "I've never in my life swung the bat as well as I did last year, and I've never swung the bat as poorly as I have right now and still gotten hits. It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen. I've been brutal.

"I know people say, 'Yeah, that's Tony, he says that all the time.' But I tell the truth. If I was swinging good, I'd tell you."

The scary thing is that Padres hitting instructor Merv Rettenmund agrees with Gwynn.

"He hasn't been that consistent," Rettenmund said. "He takes a really bad swing on one pitch, and then rips the next one into the gap. Hard to figure."

Smooth going for Rockies

The biggest difference in the Colorado Rockies, who lead the NL West, is in their bullpen. "One thing for sure," said Rockies right fielder Dante Bichette, "things can't get any better. We've just got to make sure we stay consistent. Down the road, we're going to lose a few. How we bounce back will be consistent.". . . .

The front-runner for the Rookie of the Year Award in the NL is Atlanta's Brad Clontz, who looks as if he's going to be the closer the Braves have needed in recent seasons. His sidearm delivery is baffling right-handers, and he already has three saves. "I've had left-handers tell me they don't want to face me," Clontz said. "I've had guys on this team say, 'Don't ever think any left-hander up there is going to be better than you because your ball moves so much that nobody wants to hit off somebody that has that kind of moving fastball.' "

Meanwhile, the reliever that the Braves tried for so long to acquire, the Marlins' Bryan Harvey, may be finished after blowing out his elbow. But he doesn't think so, saying this week he'll try to come back from reconstructive surgery.

Little luck in Tijuana

In an effort to revitalize the franchise, new ownership in San Diego wants to infiltrate the Mexico market in nearby Tijuana. It signed Fernando Valenzuela and Ted Higuera (who's since been released), but it may have trouble establishing a beachhead: According to members of the Padres' business staff, the team was able to sell fewer than 100 tickets in Tijuana for Valenzuela's start Friday. . . .

Saying that they had a full roster is an acceptable excuse for the Orioles for leaving left-hander Vaughn Eshelman unprotected -- unless they wind up outrighting either Jack Voigt, Mike Oquist or Jeff Manto when the rosters are reduced from 28 to 25. Then it makes no sense whatsoever, because the Orioles' 40-man roster will be down to 39 or 38. The team was pursuing outfielders as early as last fall, and it knew that it might face a decision on Voigt and/or Oquist and/or Manto. Why wouldn't it have made those choices last fall and protected Eshelman? . . . Padres manager Bruce Bochy charged out of the dugout to argue a blown call with a replacement umpire last week, tripped on the top step and hit the dirt. The next day, some Padres players drew the outline of a body where Bochy had fallen, imitating a crime scene. "I went down like a deer that had been shot," Bochy said. "I was mad at the umpire, then I looked in our dugout and everyone was laughing. I didn't know who to argue with."

New Twins outfielder Jerald Clark on the Metrodome: "It's got different acoustics. It's got a different smell, too, if you care to notice.". . . . For some reason, Boston designated hitter Jose Canseco is still thinking about achieving 40-40 this year -- 40 homers and 40 stolen bases. Even after straining a groin muscle. Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy is crazy if he does anything other than tell Canseco to shut down his running game. The Red Sox don't need his stolen bases, just his power. . . . Kevin Mitchell, the rotund slugger exported to Japan this season, supposedly has lost 18 pounds because he doesn't like the Far Eastern food. "He misses the States a little bit," Mitchell said in the third person. "He's having a tough time eating the food. He really misses In 'N Out Burger. You know Mitch, he's a steak man.". . . . Kansas City ace Kevin Appier is working on three days' rest and is 3-0. Don't be surprised when he breaks down. . . . Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who might be the most second-guessed manager in baseball despite his two World Series rings, raised eyebrows throughout baseball for moving Roberto Alomar from No. 2 to No. 6 in his order. During the past decade, the No. 2 hitter in the Toronto order has averaged 701 plate appearances per season, the No. 6 hitter 639 plate appearances. Opposing managers won't complain about pitching to Alomar 62 fewer times over the course of a season.

The Wild Thing, Mitch Williams, made his first trip into Toronto this week for the first time since allowing the World Series-ending homer to Joe Carter in October 1993. "I'm a little disappointed," Williams said jokingly. "I would have thought Joe would have had a limo waiting for me at the airport. If I ever face that [guy] again" -- again, Williams was joking -- "I'll hit him in the neck. I think that was the first time he ever got a hit off me.". . . . After five games, Giants left fielder Barry Bonds was hitting .000, and was still leading the team in on-base percentage because of his nine walks. . . .

Most left-handed hitters live in fear of facing Seattle's Randy Johnson, but not New York first baseman Don Mattingly, who has a .381 lifetime average against The Big Unit. Mattingly only has two strikeouts in 42 at-bats vs. Johnson. "Donny hits to left field against [Johnson]," said Seattle manager Lou Piniella, who managed Mattingly in New York. "He doesn't try to pull him.". . . . The Yankees have a scout trailing the Angels, watching California lefties Mark Langston and Chuck Finley. Starting pitching is the one advantage the Orioles hold over the Yankees. . . . In the first four games, Detroit's vaunted pitching staff -- pause here for the gag and choke -- gave up homers to California's Andy Allanson and Seattle's Joey Cora and Alex Diaz. Allanson hadn't homered in four years, Cora's homer was just his fifth in more than 1,600 career at-bats, and Diaz's was just his second in more than 250 career at-bats.

Not the best start

The worst starting pitcher in the AL with an 0-0 record is Minnesota's Pat Mahomes, who has a 20.77 ERA; opponents are hitting .524 against him. In both his starts, Mahomes has fallen behind by six runs -- and his teammates have come back to take him off the hook. . . . At least two teams, including Texas, have called to ask the Orioles about center fielder Damon Buford, but have been told he's not available. The Orioles want to keep Buford as insurance in the event Andy Van Slyke breaks down. . . . It is the opinion of the Los Angeles coaching staff that new Dodger Hideo Nomo, a native of Japan, is something of a genius and won't have any trouble crossing the language barrier. The other day in San Francisco, Nomo watched teammate Ismael Valdes chart pitches for two innings, and then took over for the last seven innings and completed the task apparently perfectly, with all of the symbols and writing in English. . . .

The Rangers were 1-3 in their first four games since manager Johnny Oates returned from a leave of absence to care for his wife, Gloria, who was suffering from exhaustion. "I'm back with a clear mind," Oates said. "I'm looking forward to managing the ballgames. I don't foresee missing a beat. I just go forward." The bet here is that if Texas continues to play poorly, new GM Doug Melvin will look to make a change by late summer and replace Oates with third base coach Jerry Narron permanently, moving out pitching coach Dick Bosman as well.

Less than a bonus

Marlins No. 1 pick Josh Booty, who signed a $1.6 million bonus last summer, is off to a terrible start for the Single-A Kane County Cougars. He struck out 29 times in his first 78 at-bats and was hitting .097. . . . Chicago pitching coach Jackie Brown was born in Oklahoma City, still lives there and knew three of the people in the federal building that was ripped apart by a bomb two weeks ago. One died and the other two are missing. "Those are my people," Brown said. "The shocking thing is, it's Oklahoma City. If you lived in New York or some other major-league city, it might not be such a shock.". . . .

San Francisco first baseman J. R. Phillips, in an effort to break out of a slump, started hitting fungoes to infielders to help improve his swing. . . . Cincinnati is off to a terrible start, which has manager Davey Johnson up and about in the middle of the night. Johnson said he awoke from a nightmare at 3 a.m. one night last week. "I was bug-eyed and walking around a while," he said. "I was thinking of things to do, so I did my chores -- I watered about 20 plants, I did the dishes, I did the washing, I balanced my checkbook. The house was spotless and nobody was awake yet because it was only 6. I hit some golf balls. How did I do? I hit the golf balls better than we're playing."

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