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RIGHT DOWN HIS ALLEY
Until this year Giant pitcher John Burkett was best known for being a terrific bowler (215 average) and a terrible hitter (.018 in 1992). However, by becoming the first National League pitcher to win 10 games this season, Burkett, a 28-year-old righthander, has finally gained recognition as, above all, a good pitcher.
Burkett's hot start—10-2, 3.30 ERA after last Saturday's win over the Astros—ran his career record to 49-29, a .628 winning percentage for a San Francisco team that was only 278-277 (.501) from the time Burkett made the major leagues for good, in April 1990, through Sunday.
He's not overpowering and doesn't have one outstanding pitch he can rely on, but Burkett does have superb control, as his 16 walks and 66 strikeouts in 103? innings through last week attest. He changes speeds beautifully, and he rarely throws a ball straight down the middle. "There are about three or four pitches in a game that a pitcher has to make to win the game. I'm pretty good at doing that," he says. "I'm not afraid of any hitter. I know when to challenge and when to back off."
The 6'3", 211-pound Burkett didn't consider making baseball a career until he grew four inches and gained 40 pounds between his sophomore and junior years of high school in Beaver, Pa. Before then he wanted to be a pro bowler—so much so that he worked at an alley his sophomore year and rolled 100 games a week. But the next year his high school baseball coach encouraged him to work fewer hours so he could pay more attention lo pitching.
The Giants selected Burkett in the sixth round of the June 1983 draft, but despite a few standout minor league seasons, he needed seven years to stick in San Francisco. The reason: his sometimes questionable work ethic. "I get on him a lot about things like stretching or working on bunting," says Giant manager Dusty Baker. "John's kind of a happy-go-lucky guy. But after what it took for him to get to the big leagues, he's determined now."
Baker also believes that Burkett's concentration on the mound is related to his bowling. "In bowling you focus on the mark on the lane," Burkett says. "In baseball I look at the catcher's mitt. I don't see the hitter, the umpire, nothing."
Burkett, who has rolled four perfect games and has competed in Professional Bowlers Association tour events, doesn't bowl much anymore. Even so, he says, ill walk through the outfield before games, and guys on the other teams will show me their bowling form. Mike Sharperson [of the Dodgers] told me, I'm going to take you on in bowling.' I told him, 'You don't want to do that.' "
Sharperson would lose—as have most hitters who have taken a shot at Burkett this year.