Are those pinstripes really bull's eye?

On Baseball

March 22, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- Here's a suggestion for the New York Yankees' 1998 team slogan:

"Duck!"

The Bronx Bombers are turning into the Bruise Brothers this spring. Through the first 20 exhibition games, Yankees hitters had been struck by pitches 29 times -- or more than three times the rate they were hit during the 1997 regular season.

"I think it's a Yankee thing," said new Yankees DH Chili Davis, who already has been hit twice. "I've never seen it like this before."

That might be true. The Yankees have engaged in a pair of purpose-pitch battles this spring, first with the Cleveland Indians and earlier this week with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Yankees still are steamed at Indians pitcher Jaret Wright, whose inside fastball knocked Luis Sojo out for at least four weeks with a broken wrist. There were fewer recriminations when Toronto ace Roger Clemens plunked Derek Jeter in the chest on Tuesday, because Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu already had hit two Blue Jays, including shortstop Alex Gonzalez with a fastball above the left ear.

It was clear to everyone that Irabu did not hit Gonzalez intentionally -- it was a full-count pitch -- but that didn't prevent Clemens from returning the disfavor. The Rocket wasn't going to waste an opportunity to send a message to the Yankees and his own teammates that he will protect his offensive lineup.

"I knew he was going to hit me," said Jeter. "I thought he'd hit someone, and I figured it would be me. You think about it, shortstop for shortstop."

Jeter knows the score. He jogged down to first base without incident and kept the post-game rhetoric to a minimum, but that doesn't mean the Yankees are ready to forgive and forget.

"I don't anticipate any retaliation, but I don't think anybody will forget about it, either," said Yankees right-hander David Cone. "As everyone knows, league rules prohibit us from telling you the truth.

"It doesn't necessarily mean you have to go out and hurt somebody. But you have to let your hitters know you're there for them. It's inevitable that these things carry on. Once they get started, it's very difficult to end it."

Irabu postscript

It was the first time that Irabu has hit a batter in the head since he arrived in the United States, and he clearly was uneasy about it. He sent his interpreter, George Rose, over to the Blue Jays' clubhouse to apologize and check on Gonzalez's condition.

Milton making good

Former University of Maryland pitcher Eric Milton didn't figure to reach the major leagues in his second professional season, but he has thrown so well that a place in the Minnesota Twins' rotation has gone from being a slight possibility to a near certainty.

"He's making it easy," said Twins pitching coach Dick Such.

Milton, who was the top prospect acquired from the Yankees in the Chuck Knoblauch deal, threw five shutout innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates to drop his exhibition ERA to 0.57 -- one earned run in 15 2/3 innings.

"It's exciting," Terry Steinbach said after catching Milton on Tuesday. "I don't want to be the manager or the general manager, but I think it's pretty self-explanatory. They had a pretty good lineup out there today, and he threw the ball extremely well.

"The fun thing is, he has a variety of things to work with. He has a sneaky fastball, a good fastball, a good changeup, he can use both sides of the plate. He gives the catcher a lot to work with."

Still trying

Former Orioles closer Gregg Olson has spent the past four years trying to reconstruct his career, ever since he chose to decline reconstructive elbow surgery in 1993. This might be the year.

Olson is in camp with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, and he's working to recapture the sharp-breaking curveball that once made him one of the most effective short relievers in the game.

"In my situation, I need to get guys out and work on my breaking ball as much as I can," said Olson, whose curveball was rated the best in the game in a Baseball America poll in 1992. "My breaking ball hasn't been here this spring."

Still, he has given up just one earned run in seven innings of work this spring -- throwing mostly fastballs and changeups -- and appears destined to win a spot in the Diamondbacks' bullpen.

Bad news Bosox

The Boston Red Sox are banking heavily on converted reliever Butch Henry to round out the starting rotation, but he may have run himself right out of his first regular-season start.

Henry complemented another solid performance on the mound with a pair of hits last week, but suffered a severe hamstring strain running the bases. The club doesn't know when he'll be ready to pitch again and is planning to use prospect Derek Lowe in his place if he isn't back by Opening Day.

Dead man walking

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