Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Sheffield's Patience Key To Tigers' Murderer's Row

In the Tigers' revamped, might-score-1,000 runs-lineup, Gary Sheffield's role has changed.

Oh, he's still the no. 3 hitter -- and wearing no. 3, a la the Yankees of the 1920s, who ushered in the use of uniform numbers by correlating them with a hitter's spot in the order. Hence Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig wearing nos. 3 and 4, respectively. Yes, Sheffield is still very key -- a player that the Tigers once again can ill-afford to lose for any length of time.

But Sheff's new importance -- emphasized more now with the addition of Miguel Cabrera -- is to wear pitchers down, and to make them work very hard to get him out (if they do at all), all while also setting the table for Magglio Ordonez, Cabrera, and company.

Sheffield was at his best in this department yesterday during the Tigers' Opening Day loss to the Royals. He drew four walks, one of them his patented, digging out from an 0-2 hole masterpiece. The fact that he didn't score is no reflection on him, but if he continues to grind out at-bats like that, he'll score plenty.

Think about it. Very few walks come on four straight pitches. So each walk probably expends about six or seven pitches, on an average. Those pitches add up. And Sheffield's amazing ability to draw walks -- or at least work deep into a count -- is reflected in these head-spinning numbers (thru last season):

Career strikeouts: 1,042
Career walks: 1,377

And this from a guy who's closing in on 500 home runs.

The amount of times Sheffield strikes out on three straight pitches is almost non-existent when compared to the times he works that 0-2 count full. He may not always walk, but he coaxes four or five more pitches than most batters would in that situation; again, those pitches add up over the course of a game.

It's true that plowing through this Tigers lineup will be no picnic for starting pitchers this season. But one of the biggest reasons this is so is because of Gary Sheffield's patience, which is uncanny for a power hitter of his magnitude.

Other Opening Day Notes:

Miguel Cabrera IS a monster of a man, isn't he? Sheesh. But he's sculpted, not like a Cecil Fielder or Steve "Bye Bye" Balboni -- more like a younger Frank Thomas. He's that sometimes overused word: a specimen. And it's lovely to think that he's locked up for eight years.

So Brandon Inge threw a runner out at home plate -- from centerfield. Yet another example of his athleticism at work. If he only knew how valuable he is as the team's Super Sub -- maybe even more so than if he was shackled at third base, despite his abilities there.

Speaking of 3B, and of Cabrera, one of the national scribes was wringing his hands over Cabrera's defense, citing his 23 errors last season. He feared that Cabrera's glove was as bad as his bat is good. Nonsense. First of all, I can tolerate some errors from my third baseman. They're usually tough chances, and very few games are lost because of bad third base play. Twenty-three is a very acceptable number from an everyday third sacker.

By the way, I vote for having Miss America throw out the first pitch every year -- whether if she's from Michigan or not.


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