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Small-market success at start

By TOM JONES, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003

The great thing about baseball is the first month usually offers more surprises than a Tarentino movie.

At least for a little while, a few underdogs can dream of October, that is until the Yankees and Braves get off their money-stuffed mattresses and start bashing people over the head again. Right now, though, small-market lovers can root for a Kansas City-Pittsburgh World Series.

The Royals are off to their best start, and baseball fever is alive in Pittsburgh as the Pirates are off to their best start in 10 years.

It would remain an eye-opener if either team sustains its play until even the All-Star break, but the Pirates have the better chance, and might be legit. With veteran additions Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders to go along with catcher Jason Kendall and outfielder Brian Giles (who is out for a spell with a knee injury), plus a better-than-decent pitching staff, the Pirates could hang around.

The key is the Pirates' hidden gem in closer Mike Williams, who quietly has become one of the most effective relievers.

After 23, 24 and 22 saves in his first three seasons, Williams broke through with 46 last year to shatter the club record of 34 set by Jim Gott in 1988. He converted his first three save opportunities this season. In all, Williams has an outstanding 87.4 percent conversion rate with the Pirates, nailing down 118 of 135 opportunities.

What makes Williams' accomplishments more amazing is that he was 13-27 with a 4.92 ERA before joining the Pirates as a minor-league free agent before the 1998 season.

He has come out of nowhere. Just like the Pirates.

TIGER BEAT: Wonder if new Tigers manager Alan Tramell is thinking of a different profession these days. Like knife catcher, or crash-test dummy. His 0-9 debut was the worst start by a manager since Malchi Kittridge (you remember good ol' Malchi) lost his first 13 with the 1904 Washington Senators. Kittridge's brief tenure ended four games later, with the Senators 1-16.

RARE SIGHT:The Indians-Orioles game on April 3 featured a rare sight -- a pitcher-hitter matchup between two players from North Dakota. Orioles pitcher Rick Helling (Devils Lake) faced Travis Hafner (Jamestown). Only 13 players in major-league history were born in North Dakota, and Anaheim's Darin Erstad is the only other current player from there. The only states that have produced fewer major-leaguers than North Dakota are Wyoming (10) and Alaska (eight). Nevada also has produced 13 major-leaguers.

COMFY CLUBHOUSE: Former Indians manager Charlie Manuel was so fed up in the middle of the 2001 season he ordered the pingpong table and large couch (in front of the big-screen TV) removed from the clubhouse. New manager Eric Wedge brought the couches back.

"I wanted a couch in there because it's the players' clubhouse, and I want them hanging together," Wedge said. "I don't want 25 guys sitting on 25 chairs in front of their lockers."

And the pingpong table?

"There won't be a pingpong table in there. I can tell you that," Wedge said.

CY WRONG: What's up with Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux? He started 0-3 with an 11.05 ERA and had allowed 29 hits in 14-plus innings. Personal catcher Henry Blanco said, "He's never had three starts like this in his life. He wants to help his team, and we're counting on him. He's a smart guy. He'll figure it out. Hopefully soon."

Maddux says he's fine physically, but "My location is terrible and when your location is terrible, it's tough to pitch. It doesn't do you any good to know how to pitch when you don't know where the ball is going."

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL: The Dodgers know that new ballparks in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are waiting, and that a planned new stadium in St. Louis has had promises hinted. But Los Angeles nonetheless is mounting an effort to host another All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers last hosted in 1980.

GIANT STEPS: Last year, then-Giants manager Dusty Baker waited until late June to flip-flop Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds in the lineup to get more production. This season, new Giants manager Felipe Alou needed eight games to realize a change was needed. He dropped Jose Cruz to fifth in the order and moved Edgardo Alfonzo up to second. Alfonzo is off to a slow start, batting .200 with one homer and five RBIs in his first 25 at-bats. Cruz has been red hot at .371 with five homers. Alou hopes that by batting Cruz fifth, Bonds will get better pitches to hit ahead of him.

Bonds was hitting .217 through nine games, but Alou said, "I don't care if he's hitting .210, .310, .410 or .510. He's still our big guy and we've got to give him a better shot."

NORTH OF THE BORDER: Former major-leaguer Fergie Jenkins is the commissioner of the new Canadian Baseball League, a independent league expected to operate with eight teams.

"It's the equivalent to a little better than Double-A ball," Jenkins said. "You're going to see some ex-major-leaguers, more minor-leaguers and some amateurs right out of college looking to impress scouts. The type of thing that in Canada has been overlooked."

SHORT HOPS: White Sox ace Mark Buehrle has worked through the fifth inning in 31 consecutive starts. The last time he didn't was April 27, 2002. ... Florida catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who walked just 25 times in 408 at-bats last season, was walked a franchise-high five times Tuesday. The last player to walk five times in a nine-inning game was the Giants' Brett Butler in 1990. ... Looks as if the bulldog attitude of Texas pitching coach Orel Hershiser is rubbing off on his staff. Texas pitchers hit six batters, two thought to be messages, in the first eight games. But the bad news: In his first 99 games as pitching coach, Texas pitchers had allowed at least 10 runs 15 times. ... The Astros have had four different starting third baseman to begin the season in as many years: Ken Caminiti in 2000, Chris Truby in 2001, Morgan Ensberg in 2002 and Geoff Blum in 2003. ... Rondell White didn't make an error in 951 innings as a Yankees outfielder last season. The leftfielder made a throwing error and a fielding error in his first 37 innings with the Padres. ... You think big-league teams had serious weather issues? The Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League lost an entire seven-game homestand to a combination of snow and rain.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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