Rocking And Firing
A mechanical adjustment by John Rocker could spell trouble for the Braves' playoff foes
September 16 was a scary day for potential Braves postseason opponents. Entrusted with an eight-run lead in the ninth inning against the Diamondbacks, Atlanta reliever Scott Kamieniecki coughed up five runs, and Terry Mulholland then let in one more, all without their retiring a batter. With the score 12-10 and the Bank One Ballpark crowd roaring for more scores, Braves manager Bobby Cox summoned embattled lefthander John Rocker. Rocker splinted to the mound and struck out the side on 13 pitches. "He completely shut them down," said Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "He threw some gas."
Not that Cox lacked for options in closing out that game. The Braves' bullpen, so often a question mark during Atlanta's decadelong romp atop the National League, through Sunday led the league with a franchise-record 52 saves and had three relievers in double figures—lefthanders Rocker (23) and Mike Remlinger (12) and righthander Kerry Ligtenberg (12). The Braves had converted 80% of their save opportunities, the best rate in the majors. "We all have a lot of confidence in our bullpen," says catcher Javy Lopez. "Especially at playoff time."
The ringleader of the group is again Rocker, who has quietly regained his form after a troubled first half. Suspended for the season's first two weeks because of his controversial remarks to SI last December, Rocker stalled badly and was sent to Triple A Richmond on June 5. He was recalled on June 14 but continued to struggle, giving up five runs and walking eight in his first five outings. Since then Rocker has excelled. Through Sunday he had nailed down 11 of 12 save opportunities and had a 1.30 ERA in 30 games. During the last month he has been especially fearsome: In 13 appearances since Aug. 20 Rocker had struck out 19, walked one and allowed only two runs in 12? innings. "Over the past four or five weeks he's looked just like he did last year," says Mazzone, referring to Rocker's breakout season, in which he went 38 for 45 in saves and whiffed 104 batters in 72? innings.
Rocker's resurgence has been spurred by an adjustment he made in his mechanics soon after returning from the minors. Upon watching videotapes of his 1999 outings and comparing them with his 2000 efforts, Rocker and Mazzone discovered that Rocker's left arm was tensing up as soon as he separated his hands in his delivery. Last season he had stayed relaxed until he reached the top of his motion. The extra tension was slowing Rocker's arm as he reared back, thus throwing off the timing of his delivery, flattening his breaking ball and causing his pitches to stay high in—or above—the strike zone. "He was trying to do too much, trying to throw harder than he could," says Mazzone. "I told him, There's nothing wrong with throwing 95 and knowing where the ball is going."
The extra arm tension was also wearing Rocker out, a problem that disappeared once the flaw was corrected. "After pitching an inning or so, he'd say, 'Man, I feel like I just threw nine innings,' " says Mazzone. Since the beginning of July, Rocker had pitched on back-to-back days seven times through Sunday; he had allowed only one earned run, struck out seven and walked two in those second-day games—a sign that he was ready for frequent work in a short postseason series.
"He's more in control," says Lopez of the closer. "He's not the same guy I saw at the beginning of the season."
Taking Stock in San Diego
Any general manager whose team is about to finish nearly 20 games out of first place has his work cut out for him, but the Padres' Kevin Towers faces an especially tough winter. His bosses, owner John Moores and president/ CEO Larry Lucchino, have asked Towers to trim about $15 million from the San Diego payroll, which stood at $55 million on Opening Day. "We want to be competitive, but ownership is tired of losing money," says Towers. "We've started to get younger with an eye toward being competitive when we get into our new park."
That stadium, which is scheduled to open in July 2002, is the Padres' light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel may be getting longer. Lucchino announced last week that work on the park will be suspended on Oct. 2 because the city has been slow in its issuance of permanent bond funding, which is a critical part of the stadium financing plan, and the Padres can't afford to keep the project going themselves. The stoppage could delay the park's opening until 2003. "That hurts," says Towers, who knows the new stadium will increase revenue. "The sooner we can get in there, the sooner we can be active in the free-agent market."