Nomo latest of Duquette's successful salvage missions

ON BASEBALL

April 29, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette has displayed a singular knack for finding that veteran pitcher who is on the brink of a career renaissance, so why should anyone be surprised at the performance of Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo?

The veteran right-hander flirted with a no-hitter again on Friday night -- less than a month after no-hitting the Orioles in his first start in a Red Sox uniform. He is 3-1 with a 2.40 ERA and off to the best start of his American career.

Duquette signed him to a one-year contract in mid-December, after all the premier free-agent pitchers were gone, and Nomo is one of the major reasons the Red Sox entered the weekend atop the American League East.

The Red Sox GM has done this kind of thing before, of course. It was the performance of breakout pitchers Tim Wakefield and Erik Hanson that carried the Red Sox to the 1995 AL East title in Duquette's second season with the club. And it was Wakefield and a rejuvenated Bret Saberhagen who combined for 32 victories behind ace Pedro Martinez to help Boston register the second-best record in the American League in 1998.

But a closer look at Nomo's career statistics suggest that he wasn't much of a gamble.

He had been a sub-.500 pitcher (26-32) the previous three seasons, during which he went from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the New York Mets, then underwent elbow surgery before re-emerging in the majors with Milwaukee in 1999. He led the Brewers with 12 victories that year, but slipped to 8-12 with the Detroit Tigers in 2000.

Obviously, there were some major league personnel types who saw an inconsistent pitcher whose better days were behind him. Duquette apparently saw something else - a veteran pitcher less than two years removed from arm surgery who still managed to average almost a strikeout an inning.

Nomo's 4.74 ERA last year was not outrageously high for the American League, and it figured to go down if he could take advantage of the new strike zone. He was the first to admit that the return of the high strike played a role in his no-hit performance in Baltimore, and he has continued to pitch effectively through the season's first month.

The Red Sox, who were expected to struggle out of the gate after losing superstar shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to wrist surgery, entered their weekend series against the Kansas City Royals with a 15-7 record and a slim lead over the Toronto Blue Jays. It's no coincidence that Boston has the game's best team ERA - a phenomenal 2.34 through Thursday - and ranks among the league's top fielding teams. The quick start of $160 million slugger Manny Ramirez hasn't hurt either.

Duquette and once-embattled manager Jimy Williams are looking very, very good right now. The Red Sox aren't going to pitch this way all year, but it's already clear that they are much better than originally advertised.

Japanese stars on parade

The quality of Japanese baseball - top to bottom - still may not be anywhere near the American major leagues, but the early-season performances of several imported stars is reflecting positively on the sport's evolution in Japan.

Nomo was one of the pioneers, delivering a ground-breaking performance when he joined the Dodgers in 1995. Now, he's just the elder statesman of a group of Japanese players making a huge impact on the 2001 season.

Seattle Mariners "rookie" Ichiro Suzuki is living up to preseason expectations and has been the catalyst for a team that owns the best record in baseball. Mariners reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki won American League Rookie of the Year honors last season and led the major leagues with 11 saves entering the weekend.

The Red Sox rotation also features 25-year-old Tomokazu Ohka, who has a 2-0 record and a sterling 2.38 ERA. And the Kansas City Royals have gotten a strong April from Mac Suzuki, who is 2-1 with a 2.16 ERA in his first four starts.

If this keeps up, baseball scouting departments are going to be stretched thin trying to maintain an adequate focus on both the Pacific Rim and Latin America.

`Neion Deion' update

The return of baseball semi-star Deion Sanders appears to be just days away. He's eligible to join the Cincinnati Reds' major-league roster on May 1, and there is every indication that he'll get another chance to establish himself as a productive major-league hitter.

"I never want to commit to anything, because you never know what can happen in life," Reds general manager Jim Bowden said. "He might get hurt and be on the disabled list tomorrow at Triple-A and not make it here. He might join the NBA as a guard. A lot can happen. But my inkling is, April showers bring May flowers and Deion Sanders, normally."

Sanders certainly has taken to Triple-A pitching. He was leading the International League with a .456 average at midweek and figures to be batting second for the Reds by the middle of this week.

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