Thome, Phils muscle up

Baseball: Jim Thome has hit a major league-high 27 homers and is coming off a stellar June to lead the resurgent Phillies, who are putting up big power numbers in their new ballpark.

July 02, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Phillies first baseman Jim Thome looks back at a difficult spring and wonders, like everyone else, how he got from there to here.

There was the broken fingertip in March that cast the early part of his 2004 season in doubt. Then he sprained his left hand making a tag in April and strained a ligament in his right index finger just for bad measure.

If hitting is all in the hands, Thome and the Phillies had no right to expect him to keep putting up the kind of offensive numbers that have long made him one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, and yet he has done that and more.

He leads the major leagues with 27 home runs and is coming off a June in which he tied the Phillies' record for home runs in a month (15) and led all major league players in homers, total bases (80) and slugging percentage (.816). He also tied for the major league lead with 31 RBIs, 25 runs and 20 extra-base hits.

"In spring training, when I had the broken finger, I would have been very surprised to be where I am today," Thome said.

Manager Larry Bowa might agree, except for one thing.

"Nothing he does surprises me anymore," Bowa said. "He's a great player, a great guy in the clubhouse, a great leader ... not a boisterous leader, but a guy who grinds it out every day and doesn't care what he did yesterday.

"I've seen him strike out four times and come in the next day and you couldn't tell if he had four strikeouts or four home runs. You can't teach that."

Of course, Thome is no secret weapon. He was one of the most imposing hitters in the American League during a decade in the heart of the Cleveland Indians' lineup and has not missed a beat since becoming a free agent and jumping to the Phillies after the 2002 season.

"He is as scary as anybody in either league," said Montreal Expos manager Frank Robinson. "He has a knack for putting the ball in the air, and when he does, it usually doesn't come down until it hits the seats."

The way Thome has overcome the string of hand injuries has only added to his stature in the Phillies' clubhouse, though he treats that struggle in the same low-key manner that he does everything else.

"You really try not to think about it too much," he said. "You're always going to go through times when you have nagging injuries."

Thome isn't the only one in the Phillies' lineup hitting the ball out of the ballpark at a healthy pace. The Phillies set a club record with 44 homers in June, removing any doubt that new Citizens Bank Park is one of the most favorable hitter's parks in the game.

"This is a hitter's park," Bowa said, "but if you make quality pitches, you can keep the ball in the ballpark. [Expos starter] Zach Day gave up only three runs [Wednesday night], so you can pitch well here if you keep the ball down.

"It's hard to judge with Thome, but when you see little guys going out to the opposite field, that ought to tell you something."

The Orioles will get to find out for themselves when they open a three-game interleague series here tonight.

The numbers are compelling. Entering last night's game against the Montreal Expos, the Phillies and their opponents were averaging 3.05 home runs a game at Citizens Bank Park, which ranked behind only U.S. Cellular Field (3.21) among major league stadiums for home run frequency.

That's right, the Phillies' new ballpark has played host to more homers than even Coors Field (2.76 a game), where the thin air of Denver apparently has been offset by a thinner-than-usual Rockies lineup.

The Phillies are getting power production throughout their batting order. Bobby Abreu is on pace for a career home run year with 16. Pat Burrell has bounced back from a difficult 2003 to hit 14 homers. But you can't be among the top ballparks in home run frequency if you don't give up more than your share, too.

"The way this team is built with Thome, Burrell and Abreu, it's a good park for us," Bowa said, "but out of our five starting pitchers, four are fly-ball pitchers."

Bowa insists that he loves the new ballpark, but it could be a little bit more forgiving to his pitching staff.

"Every park has an area where a pitcher can go to, where you try to get someone to hit the ball when you're in trouble," Bowa said. "I don't know right now if there is a safe place here. I manage right now like it's Wrigley Field. It's hard to play for one run here."

So far, the Phillies are managing pretty well despite early-season injuries to starting pitchers Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla and closer Billy Wagner.

"I think we've got a good club," Thome said. "Obviously, you're trying to get to that peak level, but we're hanging in there after some key injuries. Those are some big guys to take out of the equation, but you have to give our other guys credit. They've done a nice job and we're right there."

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