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4/09/2007 10:33:00 AM

NL West: Inauspicious Debuts

Barry Zito
Barry Zito couldn't navigate his way through a less-than-imposing Dodgers lineup.
AP
By Jon Weisman

Last in the alphabet but first in salary among 2006-07 free agents, Barry Zito entered the sixth inning of his second start as a San Francisco Giant with a 3.60 ERA.

Three of the next four batters hit grounders on the infield. The fifth batter of the inning was a major leaguer whose roster status is so tenuous that every game might be his last. Then came a journeyman who isn't even the most famous major leaguer with his own name.

But by the time the inning was over, the Los Angeles Dodgers had carved up the $18 million-a-year Zito much the same way area code surgeons once carved up Los Angeles -- leaving an enormous chunk of 8.18 as his ERA.

Trailing only 2-1, Zito allowed infield singles by Jeff Kent and Matt Kemp to sandwich a clean shot to left-center by Luis Gonzalez. Wilson Valdez (career OPS entering the game of .548) tripled, and infielder Ramon Martinez, known by fans of both Arrested Development and the former Dodgers pitcher Ramon Martinez as Lucille II, hit a sacrifice fly.

Just like that, Zito was down 6-1 on the way to a 10-4 loss. He wasn't exactly hammered -- but that didn't mean he wasn't looking for ways to improve after he took two of the Giants' five losses in six games this past opening week, allowing 18 baserunners in 11 innings. He told Becky Regan of MLB.com that he felt he had a problem with his release point and needs just to make "a couple small adjustments."

He's not the only one. It was that kind of up-and-down week for big-name pitchers on new teams in the National League West.

  • Zito's opponent Sunday, Randy Wolf, needed 55 pitches before he recorded his fourth out of the game. Yet Wolf used only 40 pitches more to get the next 14 outs, and ended up with his first win as a Dodger after blowing a sixth-inning lead Tuesday at Milwaukee.

  • Wolf's new teammate, ex-Giant Jason Schmidt, also scored a victory, but barely -- after walking the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth, he escaped on a popout by Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, left the game immediately thereafter but still got credit for the victory.

  • Greg Maddux, who moved south from Los Angeles to San Diego, cruised through five innings against Colorado on Thursday but renewed questions about his stamina after 60 pitches or so when he wild-pitched in the go-ahead run and then gave up a two-run homer to Matt Holliday to take a loss.

  • Arizona pitcher Doug Davis, imported from Milwaukee, has an ERA of 0.00 -- and an 0-1 record. He allowed three unearned runs in the first inning of his first game as a Diamondback on Wednesday, pitched shutout ball thereafter, but still lost.

    Perhaps the most clearcut success for an NL West starting pitcher in his debut with his team was Jason Hirsh, who struck out eight and allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings to defeat San Diego on Friday.

    If I might segue for a moment, Hirsh's performance was one of three quality starts the Rockies made in San Diego this past weekend, but Colorado lost two. Josh Fogg allowed two runs in 6 1/3 innings Saturday, but the Padres won in the bottom of the ninth. And Sunday, Aaron Cook outdid them all, sailing through nine innings with only a Jose Cruz Jr. homer as a blemish, but Kevin Kouzmanoff's 10th-inning RBI single off LaTroy Hawkins sent Colorado to defeat.

    And if I might segue the segue, Kouzmanoff epitomized the challenge managers face with inexperienced ballplayers at the outset of the season. The offseason acquisition from Cleveland had begun the year 2 for 17 when manager Bud Black rested him Friday. Kouzmanoff eventually fell to 2 for 20, but Black still did not deny him the pressure at-bat Sunday.

    And then there's the story of the Dodgers' Valdez, the 28-year-old scrub poised to go on waivers the minute starting shortstop Rafael Furcal returns from the disabled list. In his first two starts as a Dodger, Valdez got six hits and 12 assists, not to mention a game-ending putout as an emergency left fielder Wednesday. If nothing else, Valdez has given the Dodgers even more patience in granting Furcal all the time he needs to recover from his troublesome ankle sprain.

    If only to wrap the threads of this piece together, it's worth pointing out that the next big pitcher to enter the NL West might not be on anyone's major league roster right now: Tim Lincecum. The San Francisco farmhand struck out eight in five innings in his AAA Fresno debut Saturday, soothing Nick Cannata-Bowman of Giants Cove with the thought that "in the midst of what's been a less than optimistic week, seeing the next Roy Oswalt succeed right off the bat gives some hope for the season."

    Jon Weisman is an SI.com columnist and founder of Dodger Thoughts.

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  • Comments:

    Posted: April 9, 2007 1:45 PM   by Maribel
    Singling out the NL West for bad pitching the first week out is a bit unfair, don't you think? You just as easily could have made a case for the AL East too. Schilling and the whole Yankees staff didn't fair too well either.
    Hi Maribel. I never said or implied that the only pitching struggles in baseball were in the NL West. Just pointing out that the big newcomers didn't have an easy time of it there.
    Posted: April 9, 2007 3:59 PM   by Anonymous
    The Dodgers have had excellent pitching besides the opening game.
    Posted: April 9, 2007 5:13 PM   by Danny Katelnikoff
    Whenever you can work an Arrested Development reference into a baseball column, you are doing a great job. Thanks.
    Posted: April 9, 2007 7:15 PM   by Anonymous
    I think something to note is the good pitching the Cubs have gotten out of their starters besides the record they have to show for it.
    Posted: April 9, 2007 9:28 PM   by Anonymous
    Verducci picked the Dodgers to come out of the NL, which I am mystified by...they're going to have to win a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 games with that offense. This isn't 1962, and Lowe and Schmidt are not Koufax and Drysdale. When the Giants wise up and dump Ortiz in favor of Lincecum the Giants will steal this divison...
    What is in the water in SF? Did the anonymous Giant fan say that they would steal the division with that sorry lineup? They'll be lucky to escape last place, which is appropriate for Barry's curtain call. BTW, the Padres have the best overall pitching staff in the NL.
    Zito always starts slow. He'll pick it up when it counts.
    How is it that the Rockies have been getting consistantly overlooked? So far this season, their starters have been great if not dominating. Their lineup is stacked 1-6, with two promising rookies at the bottom. If anyone can "steal" this division, it's the men in purple pinstripes.
    Chris, my posting last week on Fungoes featured the Rockies:

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/ si_blogs/baseball/fungoes_blog/2007 /04/nl-west-recognize-rockies.html
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