Danger Zone

Baseball: Barry Bonds' slugging feats with the Giants have become so prolific, opposing teams are at a loss over whether to pitch to him or around him.

April 16, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO - Before there was the Enron scandal, there was the Enron Field fiasco.

The Houston Astros, determined not to take part in Barry Bonds' assault on the single-season home run record in September, walked him repeatedly during the final week of the regular season.

The result: Bonds hit only one homer, but he scored four runs off the eight walks; the Giants swept the nationally televised three-game series; and Astros manager Larry Dierker - his strategy widely criticized and his team quickly ousted from the playoffs - soon became a former manager.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, perhaps determined not to make the same mistake, chose to challenge Bonds during the final weekend of the 2001 season.

The result: Bonds hit three home runs to break Mark McGwire's 3-year-old record, and manager Jim Tracy was still around two weeks ago to watch him open the season with four homers in three games against the Dodgers.

So, which was the right approach?

The answer, apparently, is neither.

Pitching to Bonds has become such a precarious enterprise that no one seems quite sure what to do about him. He is so strong that he can hit the ball out of the ballpark from any point in the strike zone, and he is so selective that it is nearly impossible to get him to swing at a bad pitch.

He is such a great pure hitter, not just a home run hitter, that there is no apparent hole in his hitting mechanics - certainly nothing that anyone has been able to exploit during the yearlong homerfest that has created his glowing aura of invincibility.

"The guy is, without question, the most feared hitter in the game right now," said Milwaukee Brewers manager Davey Lopes, who watched Bonds beat his team with a three-run homer Friday night and deliver a long home run in a one-run Brewers loss on Saturday. "Anyone who doesn't know that is a damn fool, and anyone who pitches to him with the game on the line is a damn fool."

The Brewers didn't pitch to him in any tight late-inning situations over the weekend, and he still made them pay. His game-winning three-run homer Friday night was in the third inning, and his seventh homer of the season on Saturday came in the first inning.

You can run, but you can't hide.

"If he doesn't walk 200 times this year," Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros said recently, "the league is crazy."

Finally, the Brewers found a way to stop him on Sunday. They walked him the first two times he came to the plate, and he pulled a hamstring running the bases. The injury was not serious, so the cat-and-mouse game - in which the pitcher usually turns out to be the unfortunate rodent -resumed in San Diego last night.

"I've never seen a guy in the zone for as long as Barry has been in the zone," Lopes said. "He just doesn't miss."

Apparently not. Bonds picked up right where he left off during his record-breaking 2001 season, homering twice on Opening Day against the Dodgers and twice more in the second game of the regular season. His seventh home run (in the Giants' 11th game) Saturday moved him past Harmon Killebrew into sixth place on baseball's all-time home run list with 574.

He needs just 13 more to pass Mark McGwire (583) and Frank Robinson (586), which would put him behind only legendary sluggers Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660).

The way things are going, he could reach 600 home runs by the All-Star break.

Like last year, when Bonds walked a major-league-record 177 times, it all depends on how many swings he gets. The 200 walks that Karros was talking about certainly aren't out of the question.

"When somebody of Barry's caliber is swinging the bat well, you have to take the approach that you don't want to let him beat you," Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine said last week.

That sentiment is almost universal, but pitchers, coaches and managers around the major leagues have varying philosophies on when and how to pitch the Giants slugger.

"You can't concern yourself with whether he's going to hit a home run," said New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, "but if you've got to walk him to help yourself win a ballgame, you walk him. Sometimes, you're not starting out trying to walk him, but if you start 2-0, you don't want to throw it down Main Street.

"I can see the walks late in the game, but early in the game, I think you've got to go after him a little more, but that's easy for me to say since I don't have to do it, except for three [interleague] games this year."

Brewers pitching coach Dave Stewart, who was an aggressive pitcher during his playing career, winces at the thought of walking Bonds with the game on the line - Stewart just wasn't built that way - but he acknowledges there are times when you can't let him put the bat on the ball.

When the time is right to pitch him, Stewart said, Bonds can be pitched, but there isn't necessarily one right way to do it.

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