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Table setters lack fame but spark runs

Table setters lack fame, spark runs

Thirty years ago, Neil Young musically reminded us that "Rust Never Sleeps," and the baseball cognoscenti's spin on that is, "Speed Never Slumps."

In a game that celebrates and dotes on the big guys who clean up, there is still a major role for the little men who land opposing pitchers in a mess to begin with.

Chicks, and the TV highlights, may dig the long ball, but your typical manager is equally fond of the short game of those able to play with nuance, not brawn.

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Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said it all a couple of springs ago, when he dropped the names of Barry Bonds -- the game's most feared slugger -- and Ichiro Suzuki -- its primary skills player -- into the same sentence.

"I'd say they are the two most dangerous hitters in the game," Cooper opined, giving pitchers' perspective.

The Ichiros are the players who, in addition to setting the tables, give the manager something to fall back on when the power is unplugged. Very simple, really: You can't hit a home run at will, but, for those proficient at it, you can bunt and hit to the right side in your sleep.

There's a good reason baseball is called a game of inches, not a game of 400 feet.

"A guy hitting 50-60 homers ... that's great, but that still leaves him with 500-some at-bats when he isn't hitting them," reasons Juan Pierre, now with the Dodgers and one of the best contemporary setup hitters. "So the home run is great, but just the chances of it happening aren't that great.

"You've got to manufacture a lot more runs during the season. That's where guys like me come in."

They've been coming in since pests named Pee Wee and Scooter infested the diamond, before there were jacks or long flies or taters. And for just as long, they've been dissed.

As Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller said more than a half-century ago, with a nod toward matinee idol teammate Ralph Kiner, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs; singles hitters drive Chevys."

But you know what? Those "singles" hitters also drive championship teams. Do you suppose all the people over the years who have echoed Ostermueller's quote, turning it into one of the most legendary in history, ever stopped to think that Kiner's seven Pirates teams were among the worst ever, diving an aggregate total of 193 games under .500?

Conversely, no National League team with a league homer champ in its lineup has appeared in the World Series since 1983, when the Phillies got in with Mike Schmidt. It is a more common event in the AL -- occuring about once a decade: Boston (2004) and Manny Ramirez, Cleveland (1995) and Albert Belle. Not surprising; more reliance on "little ball" is precisely what people mean when they talk about playing "National League style."

Aha! Some clubs borrowing that NL playbook have also made some of the biggest splashes in the AL in recent seasons. A sly troublemaker can take you a long way.

There is a playground analogy. Remember the kid who would cower behind the legs of a dude, then sent toppling by a shove from an accomplice? That's Orlando Cabrera to Vladimir Guerrero, or Scott Podsednik to Paul Konerko.

Even a rookie manager such as Ron Washington of the Rangers understands this below-the-surface game, which places a premium on getting on base, not clearing them.

"There'll be times when Tex (Mark Teixeira) isn't hitting homers," says Washington, referring to one of his big sticks. "So I want people on my team who have their little specialty. If you can steal a base, if you can bunt, if you can move a runner over -- you've got a place on my team."

This is what makes a two-time World Series hero of David Eckstein, and why there is room for 5-foot-9 Dustin Pedroia among the Boston redwoods.

Says San Diego reliever Cla Meredith, a former Minor League teammate of the new Red Sox second baseman, "Don't sell him short. He's going to open some eyes and he's going to do some things that will make you go, 'Wow!'"

Meredith is talking about an infielder who wasn't hitting home runs even in college (a total of 14 in 777 at-bats for Arizona State) and might lose a foot race to Bengie Molina. But Pedroia is a base magnet (125 walks versus 77 strikeouts in three Minor League seasons) and always puts the ball in play, making even his outs valuable.

And that makes him indispensable, in any era, this one being no exception. If we define a table setter as someone with 500-plus at-bats who does not homer in double-figures, a total of 16 qualified in 2006. They included Pittsburgh's Freddy Sanchez, whose six homers were the fewest for a batting champ since Tony Gwynn in 1996.

Besides obvious perennials like Ichiro, Eckstein, Pierre and Cabrera, others included Mark Loretta, Chone Figgins, Omar Vizquel, Willy Taveras, Dave Roberts and Jason Kendall.

In 2002, Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro combined for 100 homers, but Texas finished deep in the AL West basement. Meanwhile, with Darin Erstad and Eckstein combining for 44 steals and 41 sacrifices (bunts and flies), the Angels won the World Series.

Complimented Scott Spiezio in the midst of the Halos' Classic conquest of the Giants: "Erstad's a table setter, and he takes his job very seriously. We don't hit a lot of home runs, and we rely on guys like Erstad and Eckstein getting on base and the guys behind them either getting them over or getting them in. Sometimes, getting them in means hitting a ground ball to second or hitting a sac fly or squeeze bunt. Every guy on this team can do just about everything, and that' s why we're able to score a lot of runs."

The do-everything guys are doubly dangerous. The implied threat is as effective as the executed play.

"You're asking the wrong guy, because I think that's very important," Pierre says. "Guys like me do so many different things. When you always got a man on base, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense and maybe gets the pitcher to give that home run hitter a better pitch to hit.

"The home run is pretty much just on the pitcher, but the right guy on base affects everyone on the field. He gets the defense moving around, opening up holes, and everyone's pretty much back on their heels. Once you're on base, who's to say how much you can influence?"

You can say it better than measure it. A stolen base avoids a double play on the ensuing grounder and turns into a run on yet another right-side roller. A pitcher's sidestep for a quicker delivery to counter speed takes enough mph off the heater to turn it into a cupcake. A pickoff throw winds up in the right-field corner, leading to a big inning. You don't see the threat's affect on the mind, but you do see the results.

"Everyone notices the home run. Bam! It's right there," Pierre says. "There's lots of stuff we do that the average fan doesn't see. You've got to know the ins of the game."

Welcome to baseball outside the box score.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["spring_training" ] }
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