Said Philadelphia Phillies manager Terry Francona last Friday after a 9-8 win over the Cubs, "Sosa's scary, especially when he puts the ball in the air in [Wrigley]. He doesn't chase pitches the way he used to. And the guy behind him scares me, too. I went out to talk to my pitcher, and the guy on deck [Grace] was smiling at me. He was dying to get up there. He was basically telling me, Go ahead and walk him. I'll drive him in. It's pick your poison."
Not once in 16 straight plate appearances against Philadelphia last weekend did Sosa swing at the first pitch. (Last year he had 84 one-pitch at bats; almost halfway through this season he has 16.) Two strikes aren't deadly for him anymore, either. In those counts, through Sunday, he had improved to .232 with 13 home runs, four more than he hit in such situations all of last year. The tried-and-true strategy for retiring Sosa—getting ahead on the count and making him chase pitches farther and farther off the plate—no longer applies.
"And he's not missing mistakes," says Phillies catcher Mark Parent, a former teammate of Sosa's. "That's the big thing for all good hitters—McGwire, Griffey and those guys. They don't swing at bad balls, and they hammer mistakes. They make you pay for every mistake. That's what Sammy's doing. "The other day, [Mark] Portugal tried to sneak a fastball by him on the outside, and boom—home run, rightfield. You didn't have to worry about those homers to right in the past, because he pulled off those balls. But he ain't pulling off now."
Every day before batting practice Sosa and Pentland meet in the batting tunnel under the rightfield bleachers at Wrigley. Pentland flips him baseballs to hit. He tosses them not on a line, as normally occurs with this drill, but in a high, slow arc. That way Sosa must wait, with his hands back, before finally unleashing his swing and belting the ball into a net where the right side of the field would be. The drill teaches patience. Sosa at last understands. The 30-30 pendant is a relic now, no longer found around his neck but in a display case at his home in the Dominican, like some artifact from another era.