Just listen. Texas manager Johnny Oates, following the Rangers' 5-3 win over Anaheim on Sept. 16: "Look, I don't want to say anything bad about Kevin Elster, and I won't But those balls Royce is getting to...." Reliever Tim Crabtree, following a 7-6 Texas victory a day later: "Royce has more range than anyone I've ever played with. I don't want to say anything about Kevin Elster, but he just didn't have the range."
Again, nothing against Elster, who was released the same day as the Clayton trade, but with a new shortstop the heretofore mittphobic Rangers are a different team. "When he's back there, you know balls aren't getting through," says Crabtree. "That makes you a better pitcher."
After sweeping the two-game series with Anaheim, Texas was alone atop its division for the first time since Aug. 13. With a $61 million payroll, the Rangers spent most of the season underachieving, largely because of poor defense. The limited range of Elster, 34, didn't help.
"My goal is never to have to dive," says Clayton. "I want to be in the right position as often as possible, so every play is pretty easy. I'm not trying to be flashy. I'd rather be really efficient."
Upon joining Texas, following six-plus seasons in the National League, Clayton began to collect scouting reports on every American League team. Before each series he has studied charts and statistics on opposing hitters' tendencies; then before each game he has reviewed his notes with the Rangers' starting pitcher. In last week's series against the Angels, Clayton didn't lunge, dart or dive once. When Anaheim's Gregg Jefferies smashed a liner between second and third, Clayton barely had to move.
Clayton was the less-hyped part of the deal that also brought righthander Todd Stottlemyre, a much-needed No. 3 starter, from St. Louis. In this era of offense-minded shortstops, such as Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, guys who make a living with their gloves hardly register. "Everyone admires the big hitters," says Clayton, who through Sunday was batting .274 with the Rangers and has hit better than .280 only once, "but if you look around, all the great teams have a solid middle. That's why I'm here."
Mets' Unlikely Hero
Twenty-five years ago the Mets were helped to the World Series by Tug McGraw, a flaky, hyperactive reliever who atoned for an early-season slump by pitching brilliantly down the stretch. He's best known for having popularized the rallying cry of that year's improbable National League champs: "Ya gotta believe!" This year the Mets are being helped toward the postseason by Turk Wendell, a flaky, hyperactive reliever who has atoned for an early-season slump by pitching brilliantly down the stretch. Wendell, an avid hunter, is best known for saying things like "Whenever I bag a species for the first time, I cut the animal open and I reach in and take the heart and I take a bite out of it. It's a ritual to preserve the spirit of the animal."
Early in his career it seemed Wendell might be remembered only for his odd ways. In addition to bizarre hunting practices, his eccentricities have included a black licorice addiction, brushing his teeth in the dugout between innings and ritual rosin bag abuse, which New York fans now applaud wildly. "Everybody's taken to that," says Wendell, who slams the bag to the mound, generating a generous white puff of rosin before each batter. "But I'm just doing what I do every day."
Sort of. While spiking the rosin bag might be a Wendell trademark, brilliant pitching isn't Until now his major league career had been decidedly uninspiring—11-14, 4.45 ERA and 23 saves entering this season. He was traded from Chicago to New York in August of last year, and until this June he was used sparingly by manager Bobby Valentine. At the end of May, Wendell had an ERA of 6.89 in 13 appearances. But Valentine has continually shuffled his erratic bullpen, when Wendell got his shot, he won two games, saved four and whittled his ERA to 2.92 through Sunday.