At his first press conference as a member of the Giants, in February, Japanese centerfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo was asked what he liked best about the U.S. " Krispy Kremes," he replied.
Rolling his eyes, general manager Brian Sabean said, "Keep him away from one of our pitchers."
The G.M. was referring to righthander Livan Hernandez, whose 5.24 ERA last season wasn't the only thing about him that was inflated. Hernandez's midsection looked as though he had made too many visits to the doughnut shop, enough to make his listed weight of 240 seem at least 20 pounds less than it really was. While his girth wasn't the only reason that Hernandez slumped from 17-11 (with a 3.75 ERA) in 2000 to 13-15 last season, it was enough of an issue that he spent much of the off-season trimming the fat with the help of a personal trainer and Spinning classes. He reported to spring training about 20 pounds lighter but has thus far been hit hard.
San Francisco hopes that Hernandez can return to being the workhorse, big-game pitcher that he used to be. Russ Ortiz has surpassed him as the Giants' de facto ace, but Hernandez, the MVP of the 1997 World Series with the Marlins, has pitched—and won—crucial games far more often than any other starter on the team. If the Giants are to overtake the Diamondbacks, who edged them by two games for the NL West tide last year, they'll need another huge year from leftfielder Barry Bonds plus consistency and clutch performances from Hernandez.
One encouraging sign for San Francisco is that Hernandez still has the attitude of an ace. Asked about the possibility of being the Opening Day starter at Dodger Stadium on April 2 and the accompanying pressure of that assignment, he said, "I pitched in front of 70,000 people in '97 [Game 1 of the World Series]. You think 45,000 people will bother me? Nothing bothers me."
That's not exactly true. Another reason for Hernandez's drop-off was his concern for his father, Arnaldo, who was gravely ill in his native Cuba with lung and stomach cancer. Arnaldo died in October, and Livan, who defected in 1995, opted not to return to his homeland for the funeral, fearing retribution by the Cuban government. Hernandez had declared the subject of his father's health off-limits to the media early last season, which meant that many fans who booed the pitcher knew nothing of his worries.
It's unlikely that Shinjo, the stylish, effusive outfielder acquired in December from the Mets for lefthander Shawn Estes, will hear any boos at Pac Bell Park. He is already a popular figure, particularly among the Bay Area's Asian-American population, although the impact he will have on the field has been overly hyped. Shinjo, a 10-year veteran of the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League before arriving in New York last year, hit .268 and proved to be a talented defensive outfielder as a 29-year-old rookie, but his numbers—25 walks, four stolen bases and a .320 on-base percentage in 400 at bats—suggest that he's being miscast as a leadoff hitter. "What choice do I have?" asks manager Dusty Baker, whose leadoff men had a combined .315 OBP last year.
With Baker and Sabean in the last year of their contracts, a failure to reach the postseason could lead to a shakeup at the top. The Giants have been to the playoffs twice in Baker's nine seasons but haven't won a postseason series since 1989. "I'd say we feel some urgency," says Sabean. "We keep coming close, but at some point you've got to cash in."
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