Baker's Half Dozen
Six strong, if rather obscure, pitchers have given the Giants a lift—into first place
An hour before the Giants' 2-0 win over the Braves last Friday, San Francisco lefthander Shawn Estes roamed the PacBell Park clubhouse with a photograph of the Giants' rotation posed with pitching coach Dave Righetti. Estes, who the day before against the Expos had won his 12th game of the season, was getting his colleagues to sign the glossy. When he reached lefthander Kirk Rueter, Rueter grumbled that his face had been covered by righthander Joe Nathan's sprawling signature. "Where am I supposed to sign?" Rueter asked in mock annoyance. " Nathan ruined everything."
Rueter squeezed his name in, but for a moment he knew how manager Dusty Baker must feel. The return of Nathan—who through Sunday was 5-2 with a 4.86 ERA in 14 starts and two relief appearances—from the disabled list last Friday presented Baker with an enviable dilemma: Suddenly rich in pitching, how can he cram six deserving starters into a rotation that comfortably holds only five? "You can never have enough," says Baker, who will use Nathan as a reliever for now but is considering going with a six-man rotation in September.
The second half of the season has been a coming-out party for an unheralded rotation that since the All-Star break has been the National League's best. When Nathan went down with inflammation in his pitching shoulder on July 13, the San Francisco staff ranked 12th in the league with a 4.90 ERA. Since then the starters—sparked by Nathan's replacement, righthander Russ Ortiz, who had won his last four starts through Sunday, and Estes, who hadn't lost since June 10—had a 331 ERA, tops in the league, and had won 18 games, more than any other rotation in the league. The staff ERA had shrunk to 4.37, fourth best in the league. Thanks to the starters, the Giants had the third-best record in the majors since the break and, after trailing the Diamondbacks by 6� games on July 1, had built a half-game lead in the National League West.
Ortiz, 26, has been the centerpiece of the renaissance. An 18-game winner last year in his second season in the majors, he was banished to the bullpen just days before Nathan got hurt; he was 4-8 with a 6.92 ERA, and Righetti and Baker had tired of his inability to throw strikes consistently early in the count. But when Nathan left his July 13 start after one inning, Ortiz bounded from the pen and gave up no earned runs in six innings of relief to get a win against the A's.
After a no-decision and two losses in his first three starts after returning to the rotation, Ortiz put together a 20-inning scoreless streak that was finally snapped in his 12-3 defeat of the Braves last Saturday. He has benefited from an adjustment he made in late June, when he asked catchers Bobby Estalella and Doug Mirabelli to set their targets for him behind the plate, rather than moving off the corners to set up pitches on the fringes of the strike zone. Through Sunday he had lowered his walks per nine innings from 5.9 in the first half to 4.1 after the break. "I knew I could hit the glove and with my movement get people out without trying to throw a perfect pitch," says Ortiz, who features a fastball in the low-to mid-90s, a hard curve-ball, a slider and a changeup.
If Ortiz's turnaround was a matter of a pitcher's learning how to harness his stuff in the zone, Estes's was one of a pitcher's learning how to win when he didn't have all his weapons. After breezing through 1997, his first full season, with a 19-5 record, Estes strained his shoulder in '98 and spent nearly two months on the DL; he went 18-23 over the past two years combined. Says Estes, 27, who was 12-3 with a 3.77 ERA through Sunday, "It took last year for me to come to terms with how to pitch when I'm not 100 percent"
Of the Giants' six starters, only 38-year-old righthander Mark Gardner (8-6, 4.57) is older than 30. Ortiz and 25-year-old righthander Livan Hernandez (12-9, 3.74) are signed through 2003, Estes won't be a free agent until after 2002, and two weeks ago Rueter signed a below-market-value extension worth $15.6 million that will keep him a Giant through 2003. Nathan, also 25, is still five seasons from free agency.
Given such a foundation, the rotation has begun drawing comparisons to the group of arms that has been the bedrock of the Braves' decadelong stranglehold on the National League. "It's early to compare us to Atlanta," says Estes, "but Giants pitching isn't something you usually hear about It's nice to finally get some recognition as a group."
Texas Hitting Coach