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Just a little patience

Free-swinging Twins make Lackey look like Hall of Famer

Posted: Sunday October 13, 2002 2:18 AM
Updated: Sunday October 13, 2002 10:53 AM
  John Lackey retired 12 in a row at one point and did not allow a batter to reach second. AP

By Stephen Cannella, Sports Illustrated

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- John Lackey, born and raised in Abilene, is yet another Texas-bred pitcher who grew up idolizing Nolan Ryan.

Just like his home state and his pitching hero, he's big -- 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds. But the resemblance to Ryan stops there.

You won't see Lackey blowing anyone away with a 98 mph fastball; his heater tops out at 92. He dismissed the Twins in Game 4 of the ALCS with a surgical precision that Ryan could only fantasize about when he was Lackey's age (23).

He didn't walk anybody and went to three-ball counts just twice.

"He pitched in and out and kept us off balance," said Minnesota's Torii Hunter, whose .214 average (3-for-14) in this series is actually among the better marks on his team. "Maybe we didn't expect him to do that, but he did."

Nor did anyone expect the Minnesota offense to roll over like it has.

Lackey, a rookie, pitched an incredible game, arguably the best of the 17 starts he's made in the majors. But he got some help from the Twins, who are as out of sorts at the plate as a Texan in Tehran.

They've faced excellent pitching, particularly from the Anaheim bullpen, all week long. Now, pressing to make something happen against a staff they know they can't touch, they're getting themselves out.

"We didn't get here by hitting home runs, we got here by playing small ball," first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (.286) said after Game 4. "I think we have some guys chasing, trying to hit the ball out."

The Twins haven't hit a home run in this series. They haven't played any small ball either. They've drawn just five walks in four games. They've attempted just two stolen bases, and they seem to have removed the hit-and-run sign from third base coach Al Newman's repertoire.

Some players may think they have: A potential rally in the third inning on Friday was short-circuited when A.J. Pierzynski, running from first on what he thought was a hit-and-run, was gunned down easily when Luis Rivas failed to swing at Lackey's pitch.

The Twins were known all season as an impatient team, but they've raised their free swinging to an art form. Leadoff hitter Jacque Jones (1-for-17 in the series) saw all of eight pitches in his four hitless at bats on Friday. Corey Koskie (4-for-15, including a streak of six straight strikeouts) saw 11. Lackey needed just 79 pitches, 55 of them strikes, to get through seven innings.

"They're an aggressive group," says Angels pitching coach Bud Black. "In the back of your mind you know that as the count goes deeper they might be more aggressive."

In other words, Angels pitchers needn't obsess about splitting the plate -- the Twins will be hacking no matter where the ball is. If the Twins do get a runner on, there's little worry about him scoring unless they string together a couple of hits.

"I feel much better about last night, when [the Angels] hit two solo home runs off us," Mientkiewicz said after Game 4. "Tonight they were going from first to third on us all night. That was tough."

Unless the Twins make it similarly tough on the Angels on Sunday, there will be no Game 6 in Minnesota.


 
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