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Digging a hole (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday April 5, 2006 1:08PM; Updated: Wednesday April 5, 2006 1:25PM
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The Braves stuck with rookie Kelly Johnson despite an early slump.
The Braves stuck with rookie Kelly Johnson despite an early slump.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Some of those guys who they say they're taking it one game at a time ... you might not want to believe them.

"I think those kind of guys press; I don't think there's any doubt about that," said former longtime Dodgers broadcaster Ross Porter. "They think, I've got to make myself known now and show what I can do now. I think they press."

It's even worse for starting pitchers, Porter pointed out, because they have so few opportunities to fix what's broken.

"You get bombed the first time," Porter said, "they try you again in five days, you get bombed again, they give you another start, there's all kinds of pressure for you to perform."

It can be a shock. Veteran pitcher Jose Lima finished 2004 with a shutout in Game 3 of the 2004 National League Division Series. He probably didn't expect that in 2005 his ERA would be 15.00 after his first start and that it would never once drop below 6.00 all year.

Lima is now in the New York Mets' farm system at age 33, trying to prove that he dipped into a valley, not off a cliff.

Depending on the manager, some slumping rookies get the benefit of the doubt. Kelly Johnson was in the minors last April, and after he was called up for the first time in May, the Braves rookie worked his batting average all the way down to .033 (1 for 30).

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox believed that Johnson was a better hitter than the scoreboard showed. He believed it enough that he not only put Johnson back in the starting lineup on June 13, he slotted him at designated hitter.

Johnson singled in his first at-bat that game and batted .265 the rest of the season, with a near-league average OPS and an on-base percentage over .400.

"For me, he wasn't 1 for 30," Cox recalled. "He was having quality at-bats, getting some walks [six]. I liked to see him up there."

Cox saw the big picture, and that remains the overall point. An important April tradition most fans could better embrace is to ignore early-season extremes, to remain calm even when a player's batting average matches his waist size. Most of the time, this stuff takes care of itself.

But part of the thrill of those early-season slumps is that as low as a player's batting average goes, it could actually go lower. Or that there could be an even more bizarre twist than an .000 average in summertime.

Like when Gonzalez entered July 1991 batting .000 -- and the Pittsburgh Pirates traded for him. Mmm, yeah.

And what did a 26-year-old .000 hitter fetch on the trade market? Why, a 32-year-old .175 hitter, Mitch Webster, who proved that slumps aren't everything by batting .284 once he arrived in Los Angeles.

Gonzalez also benefited from the change in scenery. He went on a 2-for-20 hot streak. His season batting average soared to .042 before the Pirates released him.

And even that wasn't the end. Gonzalez played with two more teams before he was finally out of the majors.

It's practically inspirational.

A former sportswriter with the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times, Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers and baseball at Dodger Thoughts. His book, The Best of Dodger Thoughts, is on sale now.