Thomas hits his stride in big way

SIDELIGHT

June 04, 1994|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Writer

There's probably only one person in Baltimore who is not terrified at the prospect of seeing Frank Thomas at Camden Yards this weekend, and that's Mike Mussina.

How's that, you ask, since the Chicago White Sox first baseman has a career .619 batting average against Mussina with four home runs, including one last weekend at Comiskey Park?

Mussina, mercifully, has the weekend off and won't see Thomas again until later in the year.

There's hardly a pitcher alive who wants to face Thomas at any time, but certainly not now when the ball is jumping off his bat, to the tune of 21 home runs in the first two months of the season.

"I've been feeling better early than I have. It's not any one thing," said Thomas. "I'm just hitting home runs earlier this year. There's no reason for it."

Thomas has improved on last year's form, which brought him American League Most Valuable Player honors, by boosting his power totals earlier.

Thomas hit his 20th homer last Sunday off Sid Fernandez, to reach that plateau faster than any White Sox hitter in history. He slammed his 21st homer -- a 414-foot, bases-empty blast to left -- last night off Fernandez in the fourth inning.

In fact, Thomas and Seattle's Ken Griffey are threatening to challenge Roger Maris' single-season home run mark of 61.

And Thomas' shots tend to stay aloft longer than hang gliders and glide just as far.

"He hits balls with a different trajectory," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "[Former White Sox third baseman] Richie Allen hit them hard, but his [Thomas'] go farther."

Oates added: "When we go to visiting parks, you see the distance on the longest home runs hit. Here, it's like 408 [feet] or 400. But when we go to Chicago, you look and they're 450 or 440 or 448, and that's just his three best ones. Unfortunately, some of them are against us."

But, despite 125 career homers in just over three seasons, Thomas, who is on a 12-game hitting streak and has reached base in 27 straight games, is quick to disavow the notion of himself as a slugger.

"We [Thomas and Griffey] are not trying for it [home runs]. We're just hitting the ball hard. We're definitely not trying to hit them out. That just happens," said Thomas.

Thomas, who earned league Player of the Week honors last week and Player of the Month accolades for May, was getting lots of early pitches to hit out, until AL pitchers got wise and started pitching around him.

Most hitters would see the walks as a show of respect, but Thomas got antsy, and fell into a mini-slump.

"I got a little frustrated and then I got a little wild," said Thomas. "I was just hacking and swinging at pitches I don't usually swing at."

Eventually, Thomas, who is third in walks in the American League since 1990, just behind Mickey Tettleton and Tony Phillips, learned to live with the passes, figuring that clean-up hitter Julio Franco or Robin Ventura, who bats fifth, would make opposing pitchers pay.

Franco and Ventura have combined for 100 RBIs, supporting Thomas' theory, and as the two of them have gotten hot, Thomas is again seeing pitches to hit, as his .375 batting average will attest.

Said Franco: "He's the best because he can do it all. He can hit for average and power and he can hit behind the runner. He can hit third, fourth or fifth. Everybody knows what he can do."

Some pitchers have found out the hard way.

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