Twins' vision of 20-20 punch from Smiley, Erickson looking cloudy

BASEBALL

May 03, 1992|By PETER SCHMUCK

No doubt, left-hander John Smiley considered it a defining moment in his baseball career when he recorded his 20th victory of the 1991 season. Right-hander Scott Erickson probably felt the same way. But both of them have to be wondering if it was a blessing or a curse.

Neither has won a game since.

Smiley, who was 20-8 for the National League East champion Pittsburgh Pirates, was hammered by the Atlanta Braves in two playoff starts before he was traded to the Minnesota Twins during spring training. He is winless in five 1992 starts and has a 6.84 ERA.

Erickson was 20-8 for the world champion Twins during the 1991 regular season, but he did not pitch well in three postseason starts and is 0-3 with a 5.10 ERA in his first five starts of the new season.

The two have made a total of 15 starts (including postseason play) since each won No. 20. They are a combined 0-7 with a 6.35 ERA in those games and 0-5 with a 5.89 ERA this year.

This is not what the Twins had in mind when they traded two top prospects for Smiley and put him right behind Erickson in the rotation, but general manager Andy MacPhail is urging calm. He correctly points out that Jack Morris started out 1-4 with the Twins last year before amassing 18 regular-season victories, three postseason victories and MVP honors in the World Series.

"Maybe he [Smiley] needs to get oriented," MacPhail said. "He's got the equipment. He's got the numbers. He's a bulldog. Morris was 1-4 at the start, and everybody thought he was done."

Smiley might be capable of making a Morris-like turnaround, but he has yet to give any indication that he is the same pitcher who helped lead the Pirates into the playoffs.

"It seems like he's just putting a lot of pressure on himself," catcher Lenny Webster told reporters after Wednesday's four-inning performance against the Orioles. "Maybe he's trying too hard to do well. He needs to take his time and relax and let the game come to him."

Smiley wouldn't say. He spent the post-game interview period sitting at his locker with his head in his hands. He had hoped to fill the void left when Morris jumped to the Toronto Blue Jays, but has allowed 42 base runners in 25 innings -- 15.1 per nine innings. He averaged 10.3 runners last year with the Pirates. He has had particular problems getting the ball in the strike zone. Last year, he allowed 1.9 walks per nine innings. He's averaging 6.1 walks this season.

Erickson's problems have not been so obvious. He did not pitch that poorly against the Orioles last week, but ended up with five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings of work. He, like Smiley, has more walks than strikeouts, but has averaged 12.3 base runners compared with 11.5 last year.

The Twins, meanwhile, are getting by -- just barely -- on the surprising performances of journeyman Bill Krueger and rookie Pat Mahomes. Krueger is 4-0 with an 1.69 ERA. Mahomes is 2-0 with a 4.34 ERA and opened some eyes when he struck out 10 Oakland Athletics in five innings last weekend.

*

Bear essentials: Last week, the Chicago Cubs had a string of four consecutive shutouts, the first three at Atlanta/Fulton County Stadium, more commonly known as "The Launching Pad" until the Cubs arrived.

It was the longest string by a Cubs team since 1968, when the club tied a major-league record with four straight shutouts and set a club record with 48 straight scoreless innings. The Braves have a solid starting rotation, but that was only part of the story.

The Cubs played Wednesday's game without Ryne Sandberg or Andre Dawson, both of whom were resting sore knees. The eight position players who started the game had combined for two home runs and 15 RBI, and first baseman Mark Grace had both homers and eight of the RBI.

*

Get-well card: Athletics third baseman Carney Lansford is off to terrific start at the plate, where he ranks among the league leaders in batting average. He is trying hard to forget the year he bTC spent rehabilitating his badly damaged left knee, but he was forced to relive it when he heard that Chicago White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen had suffered a similar injury.

"Last year is over, and I don't even want to talk about it, but I feel sorry for Ozzie," Lansford said. "He's got a long, tough year ahead of him. I really feel for him. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. You can come back, but it's one of those things where you have to stay with your rehab if you want to continue your career."

Lansford may have lost some speed on the bases, but he appears to have retained his knowledge of American League pitching. He entered last night ranked second in the league with a .395 average.* Cubs curfew: Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre, frustrated by his club's then-27-inning scoreless streak, said Wednesday that he was going to institute a hotel room check to monitor the team's behavior on Thursday's day off in Cincinnati. But it's not quite what you might think.

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