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Friday, May 05, 2006

Cubs; Todd Walker Likes His New Position - MLB.com

Notes: Change does Walker good
Cubs first baseman adapting to new position in field, lineup
By Jason Grey / Special to MLB.com

PHOENIX -- At a time when the Cubs are in an offensive slump, having scored just five runs in their last five games, Todd Walker is doing his best despite plenty of changes.
Walker has been asked to play a new position, first base -- in the absence of Derrek Lee -- and be more of a run producer hitting in a new spot in the lineup, third and even fourth on Thursday night.

Despite all that, Walker has continued to get it done early in the 2006 campaign. His .342 batting average ranks fifth in the National League entering Thursday, he's ripping righties at a .423 clip -- good for second in the league behind teammate Ronny Cedeno's .439 -- and his .438 mark with runners in scoring position shows he's making his hits count.

But Walker is careful not to read too much into it.

"Every time you're doing well, people want to come over and tell you how great you are," Walker said with a laugh. "But no matter how much you focus or how good you feel, you go through streaks and have good runs and bad runs. Hopefully, you just minimize the bad runs. I've already had one this year [an 0-for-11 stretch], and I survived."

Walker has gone through some torrid streaks with the bat before, but when you do it at the beginning of the season, it seems to always get a little more attention.

"No matter what you're doing, you can't let it affect the next week or even the next at-bat," Walker said, "For me, the key is that I've learned not to take anything for granted."

Despite the changes, Walker tries to put them out of his mind in the batter's box.

"I realize that if you're consistently putting the ball in play, you're going to get hits, and that's my main focus," Walker said. "Whatever happens defensively, you can't let it affect you at the plate. Just worry about it when you're out there."

Prior sighting: Mark Prior threw long toss for the second straight day as he recovers from a bout of what he believes was food poisoning that pushed his timetable back a little bit in his rehabilitation from a shoulder strain.

"I'm doing all right," Prior said. "The most important thing is I was able to get some throwing in after a few days off. We'll just take it day by day until I get my strength back up. The thing right now is just trying to get the work in. Once I get back on the mound, it shouldn't take much longer."

Prior still feels he can get back into the Cubs' rotation by the end of May.

"That was my expectation going into this past weekend," Prior said. "I was right there at the cusp of getting into some simulated games. Right now, it's backed up until the latter part of this month, but I think it's possible."

The good thing is there have been no issues with his arm.

"The shoulder's been feeling good," Prior said. "It's responded well. I haven't had any problems with it at all."

Case resolved: Prior also received a ruling in a lawsuit regarding a 2004 memorabilia signing.

The suit stemmed from a disagreement about what was expected of him during the appearance, and it alleged that he acted rudely toward fans and left without signing some additional items that he was contracted to. The judge ruled Prior must pay restitution of $30,000 for the items that weren't signed, but ruled in favor of Prior in the other portion of the case, and that he did not act inappropriately with fans.

"I'm glad it's over with and hopefully we can just move on," Prior said. "I think ultimately the decision is what was going to be expected. All along I said that I never behaved in a negative or rude way, and [the ruling] kind of cleared my character. To me, that was the most important thing."

Help on the way? Manager Dusty Baker was hopeful that some right-handed offensive help via trade might be on the way soon.

"There's some action," Baker said. "We hope so. I'm very optimistic."

Second time's the charm? Thursday night's starter, Rich Hill, became the third rookie to join the Cubs' rotation this season. He struggled in 10 appearances last season, posting an ERA above nine, but he says it will be different this time around.

"I have to challenge the hitters and not just try and nibble at the plate like I did last year," said the 26-year-old left-hander.

Scouts say Hill's curveball -- a huge 12-to-6 breaker -- is among the best in baseball, but he has had trouble commanding it at times and did indeed look tentative last year. The Cubs are hoping he can be the pitcher that led the Minors with 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

"It's just a matter of consistency in the strike zone with him, that's all," Baker said.

Hill thinks his command has been much improved this year.

"I've just been working on it and working on it and I think it eventually came around with repetition," Hill said. "I've been repeating the same delivery and throwing my curve consistently for strikes, and that's been the key difference for me so far this year."

Hill posted 1.44 ERA in four Triple-A starts before being called up, striking out 33 in 25 innings.

LA Angels of Anaheim Beat Detroit Tigers 7-2, Stop Losses - MLB.com

Angels bust out bats to halt skid
Rookie additions make immediate impact in win
By Paul Harris / Special to MLB.com

Vladimir Guerrero put the game away with a three-run shot in the eighth inning. (Paul Sancya/AP)

DETROIT -- The kids came to the Angels' rescue on Thursday.
Led by Mike Napoli and Tommy Murphy, who were both called up from Triple-A Salt Lake on Wednesday night, the Angels beat Detroit, 7-2, to snap the team's six-game losing streak.

Napoli homered in his first Major League at-bat to give the Angels a 1-0 lead in the third, and Murphy was 2-for-4, drove in a run and made a nice sliding catch in center field in the eighth inning.

"It gave us a big lift," said manager Mike Scioscia. "The kids came up and just played terrific ball."

Vladimir Guerrero and Casey Kotchman also homered and Howie Kendrick, who was only called up from Salt Lake on April 24, added a RBI single.

Napoli is the 92nd player and third in Angels' history to homer in his first big league at-bat. The two previous Angels were Don Rose in 1972 and Dave Machemer in 1978.

"I couldn't ask for anything more," said Napoli. "Down 1-2 [count], happened to hit a curve ball."

He added he was looking for a curve because Detroit starter Justin Verlander (3-3) had set up Kendrick with fastballs and then struck him out with a curve. But Verlander's curve to Napoli wasn't nearly good enough.

"I gave him his 'Welcome to the Majors' moment with a breaking ball that was nice and pretty on the tee," Verlander said.

Angels' starter Kevin Gregg (2-0) got the win. He allowed a run and three hits in seven innings. He didn't walk a batter and struck out three.

"I just wanted to come out and challenge them really," said Gregg. "And not fall behind in the count."

Verlander gave up four runs, three earned, and nine hits in six innings.

Magglio Ordonez's sacrifice fly tied it 1-1 in the fourth for the Tigers. But the Angels took a 3-1 lead in the fifth on Kotchman's first home run of the season, leading off the inning, and Murphy's first Major League hit -- which produced a run.

Murphy flew all night from Salt Lake City, and arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport at about 10:40 on Thursday. He came straight to Comerica Park.

Kendrick made it 4-1 with his RBI single in the sixth. Guerrero added a three-run homer in the seventh.

Curtis Granderson hit a sacrifice fly for the Tigers in the eighth.

"It's good to see the kids come up and perform like they did today," said Scioscia. "It indicates that our player development is working."

Paul Harris is a contributor to MLB.com

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Houston Off to 19-9 Start - Sweep St. Louis Cardinals

From MLB.com

Astros sweep away Cardinals
Pettitte outpitches Cy Young winner Carpenter
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com

HOUSTON -- Not that Andy Pettitte feels inferior to any of his teammates, but now that the Houston Astros are in their second month of the season, the left-hander was starting to wonder when it was going to be his turn to win a game.
The Astros, 19-9 after beating the St. Louis Cardinals, 4-3, on Thursday night, have had few difficulties in what is now their best start after 28 games. Pettitte, keenly aware he hadn't won since April 9, thought he might be headed down the same path this time, after laboring through two innings that forced him to throw 48 pitches.

He yielded a bases-loaded double to So Taguchi that gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead in the second, and as Brad Ausmus made his way to the mound, Pettitte was already scolding himself for a bad beginning to this start.

"Here we go," Pettitte chuckled. "We'll lose another one -- the team's got 10 losses, and I've got five of them."

That's not what Ausmus relayed to him. Pettitte said Ausmus "chewed me out a little bit," and although he didn't recall the exact dialogue, Ausmus' point was well-taken.

"I don't remember exactly what he said, but he usually doesn't come out there and gripe too much," Pettitte said. "He was griping at me a little bit tonight. It was good, it gave me a little kick in the rear end to get me going."

Ausmus was diplomatic as well.

"I wasn't happy when Taguchi got the hit," Ausmus said. "We were trying to bury that pitch in the dirt. We missed a couple spots early, so I wasn't happy about it. He did a nice job making an adjustment."

By the end of the third, Pettitte had thrown 66 pitches, and it looked like his night may be cut short. But he got through the next three frames on 37 pitches, and although he walked Scott Rolen in the sixth, the inning was soon over when Jim Edmonds grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.

"I thought he got better when he got a little fatigued," manager Phil Garner said. "He was a little more efficient. He'd get a strike, maybe a ball and get an out, instead of going five or six pitches deep into the [count]. He looked like his control was just a little bit better."

Pettitte agreed.

"I felt like I might have settled in a little bit," he said. "Sometimes, when i am a little strong, I overthrow. That's probably what was happening early, and it got me out of sync."

Once Pettitte got into a rhythm, the Astros bats perked up. Lance Berkman tied the game in the fourth with a two-run shot off reigning Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, his 11th of the season.

Pettitte said Berkman is "swinging the bat as good as I've seen anybody swing the bat that I've played with." That's a high compliment, seeing he won four World Series championship rings and played with some of the most celebrated players of the dominating Yankees era of the late 1990s.

"I'm seeing the ball good right now," a modest Berkman said. "It's just a hot spell for me. You try to keep it going as long as you can. It's about consistency. Anybody can be a great player for a month or a week, but you've got to do it over the long haul. That's what separates guys that are considered great players."

Carpenter had never lost at Minute Maid Park until this start. His ERA was a miniscule 0.84 over four games in Houston.

Jason Kendall Gets Four Game Suspension For Charging Mound

Kendall receives four-game suspension

A's catcher will appeal decision for charging mound vs. Angels

By Mychael Urban / MLB.com

| OAKLAND -- A's catcher Jason Kendall, who charged the mound in Anaheim on Tuesday after exchanging heated words with Angels right-hander John Lackey, was slapped with a four-game suspension Friday afternoon.
Kendall, who was suspended four games in 2004 after charging current teammate Joe Kennedy, also was fined an undisclosed amount for this week's incident. Lackey escaped suspension, but he was fined as well.

Kendall, who was not immediately available for comment, has said he will appeal the decision. The A's open a three-game series against the visiting Devil Rays at McAfee Coliseum on Friday night and travel to New York, where his appeal likely would be heard, next Friday.

NY Yankees Randy Johnson Wins Despite Poor Performance - Baseball HQ

Baseball HQ sent (via email) this report on the Yankees Randy Johnson:

Johnson wins despite mediocre start... Facing the Devil Rays on May 4, Randy Johnson (LHP, NYY) gave up five earned runs but still managed to get a win. Back in April, HQ analyst Andy Andres speculated that Johnson is experiencing some age-related decline, based on the DOM/DIS splits in his pitching logs. Let’s see if the BPI’s also tell the same story.

Year IP Ctl Dom Cmd hr/9 H% S% ERA xERA
==== === === ==== === ==== === === ==== ====
2003 114 2.1 9.9 4.6 1.3 36% 72% 4.26 2.84
2004 245 1.6 10.6 6.6 0.7 28% 74% 2.61 2.39
2005 225 1.9 8.4 4.5 1.3 29% 72% 3.80 3.05
2006 43 1.9 6.1 3.2 1.0 28% 58% 5.02 3.62

This is a mixed bag of good news and bad news. On the good side, Johnson’s 5.02 ERA can be justified as the result of a pitiful 58% strand rate. His 3.62 xERA gives a better picture of his true performance to date, and a mark by which to set future expectation. On the bad side, Johnson’s dominance (K/9)is in a state of steep 3-year decline, which is in turn sinking his command (K/BB). The current levels of 6.1 Dom and 3.2 Cmd are still within the range for desirable pitchers, so Johnson should still enjoy a successful season. However, it is not right to expect a sub-3.00 ERA at this stage, based on his xERA. Even so, the misleading 5.02 ERA makes Johnson an excellent buy-low candidate.

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