Clouds mar D'backs' horizon

Game 2: After Randy Johnson's decisive loss Tuesday, Arizona and Curt Schilling face St. Louis today with the champs feeling a heightened sense of urgency.

October 03, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX - The world champion Arizona Diamondbacks arose yesterday to a string of troubling questions about the viability of their postseason title defense.

That's what happens when you send the most overpowering pitcher in baseball to the mound in the first game of the best-of-five Division Series and he gets his head handed to him in his ballpark.

The St. Louis Cardinals scored such a resounding victory over Randy Johnson in Game 1 late Tuesday night that today's matchup between 23-game-winner Curt Schilling and Cardinals left-hander Chuck Finley has taken on a sense of urgency - and uncertainty - usually reserved for the decisive game of a postseason series.

"They delivered a haymaker," said veteran first baseman Mark Grace, "and now we need to deliver a haymaker, too."

Not that anyone in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse is showing any signs of panic. They haven't suffered a lot of 10-run losses with Johnson on the mound, but they have enough experience to tell you that it would have counted the same if the game had been 3-2 instead of 12-2.

They'll also point out that they have one of the most effective postseason pitchers in history ready to send this series to St. Louis tied at a game apiece - just like last year. The difference, of course, is that Schilling won the first game last year and Johnson lost the second game. There figures to be a little more pressure this time, especially with the Arizona offensive lineup thinned by injuries.

"They beat us up pretty good yesterday," Schilling said. "If we can come back tomorrow and get one, I think we can mentally feel like we've leveled the playing field."

There are other differences, too. This doesn't appear to be the same Curt Schilling who dominated the postseason last year (4-0, 1.12 ERA) or blazed through the first five months of the 2002 season. He was 21-4 with a 2.68 ERA through Aug. 21, but is just 2-3 with a 5.44 ERA in his last eight appearances.

In his final regular-season start Sept. 25 against the Cardinals, he struck out 12 but gave up two three-run home runs in a 6-1 loss. He made a brief relief appearance against the Colorado Rockies on Sunday and gave up a three-run shot to second baseman Brent Butler.

What's going on?

"Everybody was ready to make excuses for me in September," Schilling said. "My elbow was bothering me. ... I wasn't feeling well. ... I was tired. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

"I feel great physically. Mentally, yeah, I'm a little bruised. I stunk it up the last five or six starts. No one wants to have their psyche beat up like that. "

Manager Bob Brenly acknowledges that Schilling has struggled with his control of late, but he says he wouldn't want anyone else to take the mound for today's game.

"I think in any sport, there are certain guys who relish the limelight," Brenly said. "I think back to my playing days. I'm sure you all remember Will Clark was a guy who was obviously a great player throughout the regular season, but when the lights were the brightest, it seemed like he looked forward to those opportunities to show the world how good he was.

"I think Schill is a lot along those same lines. He's as dependable and consistent as any pitcher in the game throughout the regular season. But when the lights are the brightest, he seems to bring his best."

There has been speculation that the reason Schilling struggled down the stretch was because opposing hitters have figured out what he's going to throw by the way he conducts himself on the mound.

Former major-league pitcher Rick Sutcliffe told the Arizona Republic on Tuesday that Schilling was tipping his pitches with the way he holds his glove before he throws the ball. He said that Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds has told him the same thing.

Schilling and Brenly seemed skeptical of that notion, but neither would dismiss the possibility out of hand.

"I will pay it the consideration I think it deserves," Schilling said. "I'll look at video. I don't think that's why I've been getting hit. I've been getting hit because I haven't executed. I haven't made good pitches. Certainly, if there's something I feel needs to be addressed, I'll address it."

At this point, with Schilling likely to make two starts in the best-of-five series, the Diamondbacks have to make sure that he isn't volunteering any information to opposing hitters.

"We try to watch all of our pitchers closely to make sure that doesn't happen," Brenly said. "An overwhelming majority of our preparation time for every game is to look at opposing pitchers to see if they're doing something similar.

"Schill is a very intelligent man. We've got a lot of experienced baseball eyes that have been looking at video the last couple of days. If there's something there, we'll correct it."

In the meantime, the Diamondbacks have contented themselves with the knowledge that Schilling has been almost automatic in the postseason.

"Curt is the best postseason pitcher of our era," Grace said. "If I had to win one game in the postseason, I'd want the ball in his hand."

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