Alomar blooms in critical spring Healthier outlook extends both to shoulder, manager

March 27, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

VIERA, Fla. -- Without looking at a schedule, Roberto Alomar knows it is time to head north. For the first time in nearly a year, he has no questions left to answer.

Alomar reported early to camp last month to begin testing his surgically repaired left shoulder and to sample life without the oppressive presence of Davey Johnson as manager. Both have gone well. Alomar, now 30 and entering the final season of a three-year, $18 million contract, insists his mind is free of the distractions and his body free of the injuries that conspired against him in 1997.

"I feel like I did before," says Alomar, who began last season sidelined by a sprained ankle suffered during a charity basketball game and a five-game suspension related to his spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck. "I can run pretty good. I can hit the ball all over the field right-handed. What I've wanted to do, I've been able to do."

Hitless in two left-handed at-bats against the Florida Marlins yesterday, Alomar is batting .288 with no home runs and eight RBIs. He has yet tried to steal a base while appearing in 20 games, more than anyone except Mike Bordick, Joe Carter, Ozzie Guillen, Ryan Minor and Jesus Tavarez -- most of them players either pushing to make the team or adjusting to new roles.

Bothered by a torn left labrum that required November arthroscopic surgery, Alomar did not bat right-handed after May 30.

He was disabled in July by a pulled groin and never regained total range of motion. Still, his season included a three-homer game, an 11-game hitting streak and an eighth consecutive starting berth in the All-Star Game.

"I had never been hurt before like that," he said, referring primarily to the shoulder problem. "I think it had been building for a while, then something happened and it went. It was a difficult thing to deal with."

Alomar hit .333 overall last season, but his left-right breakdown was more revealing. The numbers portrayed two different hitters.

He batted .365 left-handed with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs, but struggled to a .248 finish with no home runs and eight RBIs right-handed. He carries a .321 career average hitting left-handed compared to .263 right-handed, but he had previously shown greater home run power right-handed. Even though he batted .500 in 70 September at-bats, Alomar insists he never contemplated forgoing switch-hitting.

"I know I'm a better hitter left-handed, but I'd rather not just hit left-handed," Alomar says. "All switch-hitters began hitting just one way. I'd say that 75 percent of switch-hitters hit better left-handed than right-handed. I might hit only .250 right-handed, but I can do a lot of other things to help the team win. It's not all about batting average. People in the game realize that."

Alomar knows he will be quickly challenged inside by left-handed pitchers who may doubt his ability to turn on a pitch. Montreal's Carlos Perez did so on March 19 and Alomar responded by driving the pitch into the wind to the warning track. "The outside pitch is actually more of a problem," he says, citing the greater extension required.

"Every at-bat has been important," adds Alomar. "Every at-bat tells me more and gives me more confidence. Right now, I feel very good."

Alomar's fluid motions in the field and his quick actions at the plate have impressed manager Ray Miller, who sees Alomar "bored" by the Grapefruit League's dying days. The manager's only remaining question is whether to bat Alomar No. 2 or No. 3. Alomar does not give a preference, but admits to being extremely comfortable batting second. Miller believes Alomar the team's best hitter, thus deserving the third spot.

"He's a special player. He's one of the few guys who can raise his game when he has to," says Miller. "He can hit the ball all over the field with authority and I like the idea of him hitting with guys on base."

Alomar raves about his new manager -- "whatever he wants me to do, I'll do, because he only wants the best for the team," he says of Miller -- a contrast to the smoldering distrust he held for Johnson.

Subtly, however, Alomar implies a preference for hitting second, reflecting on his days with Toronto when he often moved runners along for Joe Carter to drive home.

"I like to score the first run," says Alomar, the team's best bunter as well as a former 50-stolen base man. "With our pitching staff, you're making the other team score two runs. That's a difficult thing. I like to play the game that way."

Yesterday and the days before that have reminded him that he is again capable. There can be no better news this spring.

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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