Tim Salmon has broken out of his slump and led Anaheim's reversal of fortune
By late April, Tim Salmon's slump had lasted so long-more than a year—that it was time to make an unorthodox adjustment. Anaheim hitting coach Mickey Hatcher took the 33-year-old Salmon, who hit .227 last season, into a batting cage and had him face a machine delivering nothing but curveballs. Go to the plate looking for the curve and adjust to the fastball, Hatcher told him, contradicting the message taught to every young hitter. "Sitting on the curve slows down Iris lower half," says Hatcher. "His hands arc so good that he can catch up to the fastball."
The move appears to be working. Through Sunday, Salmon, who got off to an 11-for-62 start this season, was hitting .324 with five home runs and 17 RBIs since April 24. Not coincidentally, that's the day the fallen Angels began to turn their season around. Since losing 14 of its first 20 games, Anaheim had become the hottest team in baseball through Sunday, having won 18 of its last 21 after taking two of three from Chicago last weekend. Says White Sox manager Jerry Manuel, "They look like they're fulfilling the potential that everyone talked about."
Much of that potential resides in the pitching staff. The rotation has flourished with a combination of three solid young starters—lefthanders Scott Schoeneweis and Jarrod Washburn, and righty Ramon Ortiz—and veteran righthanders Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele, who were signed during the off-season. Led by lefty Dennis Cook and righty Lou Pote (combined 1.62 ERA in 28 appearances), the underrated bullpen had the AL's fourth-lowest ERA (3.73) at week's end.
Mostly, though, the Angels have scrapped their way back into the playoff race—through Sunday they were four games behind the Mariners in the AL West and 3� in back of the Yankees for the wild card—with as much subtlety as Chris Matthews interviewing a Greenpeace activist. During that 18-3 tear Anaheim outscored its opponents 161-65.
Salmon's hot streak has been his first meaningful contribution to the offense since 2000, when he hit 34 homers and drove in 97 runs. His surge has been matched by another key member of the lineup who is coming off a terrible year. Centerfielder Darin Erstad battled a strained right knee throughout 2001 and spent much of the year fighting the bad mechanics he developed trying to ease the pressure on his front leg.
Erstad is healthy now, though he too got off to a slow start this season. That changed after he sustained a concussion while chasing a fly ball into the wall against Texas in mid-April and sat out for a week. Before the injury he was batting .242 with a .284 on-base percentage. Since his return on April 28 he had hit safely in 15 of 18 games at week's end and raised his average to .313. "Now everyone who struggles here is going to bang their heads against a fence," says manager Mike Scioscia. Hey, for the surging Angels, no solution is too off the wall.
Thomas Dropped in Lineup
The Big Hurt: No. 3 No More
Catching Frank Thomas's first at bat used to require getting to the park on time. A fixture in the third spot in the White Sox lineup since 1991, the Big Hurl was as much a part of the first inning as first-pitch fastballs. In fact on the rare occasions when manager Jerry Manuel raised the idea of moving the slugger around in the order, Thomas balked.
Yet there was Thomas last weekend, contentedly batting fifth in a series against the Angels Magglio Ordo�ez, the league's seventh-ranked hitter through" Sunday at .329, had been moved up from cleanup to Thomas's third spot, and Paul Konerko, ranked third in the AL with a .341 average, had ascended from fifth to fourth. "I suggested it to Jerry,' says Thomas, who was dropped in the order on May 11, ending a stretch of 11 years in which he never started a game batting any where other than third or cleanup.