Johnson needs to bench ego, keep Palmeiro at first

September 30, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

SEATTLE -- Play Raffy.

Manager Davey Johnson's plan to stack his Game 1 lineup with right-handed hitters makes total sense, but Jerome Walton should not start at first base over Rafael Palmeiro against Seattle left-hander Randy Johnson.

Benching Palmeiro would be more appropriate if Johnson planned to use Chris Hoiles at first and Lenny Webster at catcher. But Webster apparently is out until Game 2 with a sore elbow, so Hoiles figures to catch Game 1.

Which leaves Walton as the leading right-handed option at first.

Johnson used him four times at the position in the final week, but what is it about Walton that he finds so appealing? Sure, Walton played for Johnson in the '95 postseason with Cincinnati. But that can't be the reason -- Walton went 0-for-10.

Starting him over Palmeiro would be getting too cute, going too far.

It doesn't matter that Palmeiro is 1-for-21 off The Big Unit in his career. It doesn't matter that the Orioles beat Johnson three times this season without him in the starting lineup.

Palmeiro led the team in home runs (38) and RBIs (110) during the regular season, while Walton barely contributed, missing four months with hamstring and groin problems.

What's more, Walton has never faced Johnson. His two-homer game in the season finale? That should not even enter the equation. Walton had been 5-for-34 since being activated Sept. 1.

Oh, and by the way, Walton is an outfielder, not a first baseman.

Simply put, it would be foolish for Davey Johnson to compromise his infield defense in a game that is likely to be low-scoring.

Palmeiro has declined somewhat at first, but he's better than Walton.

Johnson's willingness to adjust is laudable -- Johnny Oates, for one, would never bench a regular in a game of this magnitude -- but there's no way he can justify sitting his leading run producer for a player with only 115 at-bats the past two seasons.

Granted, you could make the same argument against Eric Davis, who has batted only 30 times since returning from colon-cancer surgery. But Davis is more of a power threat than Walton and an outstanding right fielder, not to mention an inspiration to his teammates.

Johnson needs to make a change at second base with Roberto Alomar unable to bat right-handed. That's fine -- Jeff Reboulet is 3-for-8 with a homer off Randy Johnson this season, and a .314 hitter against him in 35 career at-bats.

The manager also could make a valid case for Jeffrey Hammonds over B.J. Surhoff in left. Their career numbers against Johnson are similar -- Surhoff is 2-for-12, Hammonds 2-for-13. But Surhoff did not face Johnson this season. Hammonds hit a two-run homer off him on Aug. 15.

Hammonds, Davis and Brady Anderson in the outfield, Palmeiro, Reboulet, Mike Bordick and Cal Ripken in the infield, Geronimo Berroa at DH, Hoiles behind the plate.

That's a representative lineup.

Walton at first?

That would be a manager's ego running amok.

Johnson could argue that sitting Palmeiro would enable the Orioles to dictate late-inning matchups -- Seattle manager Lou Piniella would be hesitant to summon a right-hander with the threat of Palmeiro looming.

Indeed, the Orioles rallied to beat Seattle in a game Johnson started on May 18, with Palmeiro delivering a two-run, two-out single in the ninth inning off left-hander Norm Charlton.

Still, it's not as if the bench would be empty without Palmeiro -- Johnson would still have Alomar and Surhoff, remember?

Besides, the whole debate is ridiculous. Johnson might pitch a complete game, pinning the left-handed hitters to the bench.

Palmeiro has hit 22 homers since the All-Star break, third in the American League, and five in his last 16 games. Johnson's three other alternatives -- Webster, Walton and Aaron Ledesma -- have combined for 12.

Frankly, the Webster-Hoiles combination wouldn't be that attractive even if Webster could catch games 1 and 2 -- Webster is 0-for-6 with four strikeouts lifetime against Johnson.

Ledesma? He was one of the Orioles' hotter hitters down the stretch, but he lacks postseason experience, and shouldn't even be under consideration.

But wait, there's one more reason to play Palmeiro.

Indeed, it might be the best reason of all.

For years, Palmeiro has craved the national spotlight. He has never been voted to an All-Star team. And in recent weeks, several magazines have written extensively about his lack of recognition.

Raffy wants more pub?

Let him face Randy Johnson in Game 1 of the Division Series, in prime time, on NBC.

It would be a terrific motivator. Indeed, maybe that has been Johnson's thinking all along. The manager is not above playing mind games. He could approach Palmeiro at today's workout, say, "Raffy, I need you, buddy," and light a fire under him.

It would make more sense than starting Jerome Walton at first, that's for sure.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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