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With little bite in bats, Blue Jays dig deep hole

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Toronto Blue Jays are sinking fast in the American League East, but general manager Gord Ash isn't ready to give up on the club's seemingly benign offensive lineup. He said recently that he'll wait until at least mid-May to evaluate the situation.

"There's no magic to, say, May 15," Ash said. "It just seems logical. It comes to 25 percent of the season. Your regulars should have 160-180 at-bats and I think that's a pretty good measuring stick."

The way things are going, however, the Jays could be well out of contention by that time. The Yankees are off to a terrific start and the Red Sox are staking out a place at the top of the standings. Even the struggling Orioles are comfortably ahead of them in the standings.

"If you start beating yourself up [in April] about being 'X' games behind this team and 'X' games behind that, you're in trouble," Ash said.

He's right about that, but the Jays are in trouble and it already may be too late to do much about it. The offense, as expected, has been extremely unproductive, ranking last in the American League in combined batting average and ahead of only the beleaguered Detroit Tigers in runs scored.

No one should be surprised. The Blue Jays were at the bottom of the heap in both departments last year, and they opened the 1998 season with hard-hitting Carlos Delgado on the disabled list and RBI machine Joe Carter in Baltimore.

Hitting coach Gary Matthews, whose job security may hang in the balance, is at a loss for answers.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed in the way we've [not] been able to execute and get guys in from third base," Matthews said. "I wasn't, by any means, a superstar when I played, but the one thing I was able to do at clutch time was to, more often than not, get the guy in from third base. It's easier said than done."

The problem is systemic. The young players -- including Jose Cruz and Shawn Green -- are struggling and there really aren't any veterans swinging the bat well enough to show them the way. Newcomer Jose Canseco has hit some home runs, but is not hitting for average, and veterans Darren Fletcher, Juan Samuel and Mike Stanley all are hitting below .200.

"The one thing you can't give the guys as a hitting instructor is courage and heart," Matthews said. "You can give them all the training but, ultimately, it's up to them to perform. Obviously, all the guys who are hitting so low are better hitters than they're showing. They can't be this bad. They just can't."

Guillen's exit

No one in the Orioles' front office enjoyed giving utility man Ozzie Guillen his unconditional release Friday, but it was the right move for the overall good of the team. The club wasn't putting the veteran infielder to any significant use, and there are other areas that need to be addressed.

It might even turn out to be the best thing for Guillen, who proved to be of marginal value as a once-a-week player, but might still be able to hook on somewhere as a fifth infielder and get more regular playing time. The Orioles already had No. 1 reserve Jeff Reboulet and a group of starting infielders that seldom take a day off.

Can the Boss resist?

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has been adamant about protecting Cuban pitcher Orlando Hernandez from the New York hype that helped turn Hideki Irabu's first season in the United States into a disaster, but how long will he be able to keep the veteran pitcher down on the farm if Hernandez continues to dominate Triple-A hitting?

No. 5 starter Ramiro Mendoza hasn't exactly torn up the Bronx. He's 0-1 with a 5.76 ERA, so he is a candidate for more minor-league seasoning. Hernandez struck out 10 and gave up just two hits in his last minor-league start, perhaps justifying a sooner-than-expected chance to realize his dream of pitching in the major leagues.

GM Brian Cashman insists that the Yankees are content to take it very slow with Hernandez, but he did sign a $6.6 million contract and he isn't exactly a spring chicken.

Operation Drag

The 10 youngest members of the Arizona Diamondbacks roster were forced to wear dresses on the club's charter flight back from Florida last week as part of an initiation ritual instituted by veterans Matt Williams, Jay Bell and Andy Benes.

"It's not hazing," Williams said. "It's tradition. Win or lose, it's been part of a tradition of a lot of players who have been here before us. It's all about doing it and being part of it. It's an experience we all will never forget."

Williams said that he was forced to wear a dress twice while he was a young member of the San Francisco Giants. He claims it was a traditional rite of passage on that team, though -- in the Bay Area -- it's possible that he just fell in with the wrong crowd.

Red Sox roll

Boston got off to the best 25-game start (18-7) since the club dashed out of the box and went all the way to the World Series in 1946. Manager Jimy Williams undoubtedly deserves some of the credit for the club's record April win total -- if only for the way he nursed the club through a difficult spring -- but he isn't taking any.

"I'm not doing anything," Williams said. "All I'm doing is sitting over there, watching these guys. They're the ones doing it. I don't know if I've ever been in so many close games down to the last at-bat with the way these kids are playing. But I've still got to go back to the way we pitch it and catch it."

Mr. April

Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez is off to the best start of his career, or anyone else's for that matter. His 36 RBIs before May 1 is a major-league record and puts him well ahead of the pace necessary to challenge Hack Wilson's single-season record of 190.

If Gonzalez were to continue at his current pace -- which may be beyond the realm of possibility even in an expansion year -- he would end up with 224.

"There have been a lot of people on base when I've come up," Gonzalez said. "I'm swinging the bat well and feeling comfortable. I don't worry about home runs, but I like getting RBI because that's my job."

Dellucci recalled

Former Orioles prospect David Dellucci is back in the major leagues. He was recalled from Triple-A Tucson and delivered a two-out, two-run single in his first National League game on Monday night and topped that Friday night by going 3-for-3 with a homer and two RBIs.

Dellucci was the last player cut by the Diamondbacks this spring and learned that he would not open the season in the major leagues on the same day that his truck -- a gift from his late grandfather -- was stolen from the parking lot at his Phoenix hotel.

"That was one of the longest, toughest days of my life and my career," Dellucci said. "That truck meant a lot to me because of the little things, not necessarily the material things. All my possessions were in that truck, including my first baseball card. Those things are gone now. They can't be replaced."

The truck eventually was found, stripped, in a towing yard. Dellucci can only hope he'll have an easier time finding playing time at the major-league level.

Nice find

The Atlanta Braves obviously believed that reliever Brad Clontz had outlived his usefulness, but the Los Angeles Dodgers have made excellent use of him since he was released by the Braves at the end of spring training. Clontz did not allow a hit in his first 11 2/3 innings, and has allowed just one hit and two runs in 14 1/3 innings overall going into last night.

Too hot to handle

One of the hottest hitters in the major leagues isn't listed on the league leader sheets. Braves shortstop Walt Weiss entered last night with a .431 batting average, but he didn't have enough at-bats to qualify for the NL rankings.

"I don't know of anybody else who has had a better April," manager Bobby Cox said earlier in the week. "He's not going to get a lot of recognition for [his offense] because he doesn't hit home runs, but he's also won as many games for us with his glove."

Weiss is just enjoying the ride. His career average in April was just .269 before he signed with the Braves in the off-season. He has never swung the bat so well, even during the four years he spent playing in the ultimate hitter-friendly environment in Colorado.

"I've never hit .400 in any month," he said. "I feel like I've got a chance at the plate. There's times as a hitter that I don't have a chance when I'm really struggling. I wouldn't say that I know I'm going to get a hit now, but I feel like I've given myself a chance."

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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