Two of baseball’s premier base runners, Rickey Henderson and Alan Wiggins, have been conspicuous by their absence from the “runs scored” column in box scores in the early weeks of the season.
Henderson, whom the New York Yankees obtained in a trade with the Oakland A’s, has been out of the lineup all season with a leg injury. If George Steinbrenner wants to see something run fast, he has to watch the horses at his Florida farm.
The Padres’ Wiggins hasn’t been much more active.
After suffering a knee injury late in spring training, Wiggins missed the first five games before returning to the lineup a week ago.
Since then, he has been all but invisible on the basepaths, thanks to a pronounced slump. He hasn’t had a chance to see how his knee will react to a slide because he hasn’t had an opportunity to steal a base yet.
Wiggins hit .276 and stole 66 bases in 1983, then batted .258 with 70 steals a year ago.
But he took an .077 average into Monday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves.
He was mired in a 1-for-20 slump and was hitless in 11 straight at-bats. He had no way of knowing, but it was going to get worse.
Wiggins isn’t down on himself, but he knows the Padres are eager to see him find his stroke. Runs come much easier when the fleet leadoff man is on base ahead of Tony Gwynn, Steve Garvey & Co.
“I’m not discouraged,” Wiggins said Monday night. “I know I’m not playing as well as I can, but I feel relaxed and I’m not nervous.
“I can’t see the future, but if I get my mechanics right, I will get some production.”
Hitting instructor Deacon Jones focused his attention on Wiggins in batting practice. The objective was to get Wiggins to move his hands back slightly, so his swing would be more compact and solid.
“It’s not panics-ville,” Jones said. “A couple of base hits are the best tonic in the world.”
Wiggins, a switch-hitter, was 0 for 11 batting left-handed and 2 for 15 from the right side before Monday’s game.
On his first trip to the plate Monday night, he grounded to first. Same thing in the third inning. In the fifth he lined to short. He fouled out in the seventh with runners at first and second.
While the Padres waited for Wiggins to get untracked, it was tempting to recall how fluidly the offense functions when he is on base.
“It really opens things up for us,” Gwynn said. “Things happen quickly. We have to work when he isn’t on base.”
Gwynn cited an example from Saturday night’s win over the Dodgers. Early in the game Wiggins walked, moved to second on a balk, to third on a Gwynn sacrifice and scored on a Garvey ground out.
Pitchers often get distracted by the threat of a Wiggins steal and tend to throw more fastballs, which are easier for the catcher to handle.
“Tony sees different pitches when Wig isn’t on base,” Jones said. “He gets more fastballs to hit when Alan is on.
“Another thing (Wiggins’) speed does for you, it can give you an extra out because an infielder will hurry and make an error. And when Wiggins isn’t getting on, it means the third, fourth and fifth-place hitters have got to deliver more big hits.”
The complex problems generated by the Wiggins slump are related in no small measure to the timing of his injury, which came late in spring training.
It happened at a time when most players are rounding into top shape and honing their skills for the opening of the regular season. The injury occurred on March 30 when a baserunner slid into him on a double-play attempt.
“Alan missed the last two weeks of the spring, a crucial time,” Garvey said. “That’s the worst time to get hurt. And a knee injury like Alan’s requires time to heal. I know he’s conscious of it. He doesn’t have that spring in his step.”
Wiggins agreed that his timing was poor, because he was hitting the ball well when his injury occurred. But he denied that his knee is bothering him now.
“I’m hitting good in batting practice, but I just don’t have a good stroke yet in a game,” he said. “I would bunt more, but the third basemen and first basemen have been moving in on me. The bunt isn’t such a good weapon if you don’t have the element of surprise.”
Jones suggested that the bunt could be worth at least 20 points to Wiggins’ average over the course of a season.
“He’s much improved as a bunter, and he can be great at it,” Jones said. “He believes in it now.
“I’m sure Wig is a little disappointed in himself at this point, but his slump hasn’t affected him in the field, and that’s a plus.”
Jones predicted that Wiggins can still wind up hitting close to .300 this year.
General Manager Jack McKeon isn’t worried.
“I wouldn’t even say he’s in a slump,” McKeon said. “He started slowly last year, too. It’s just a matter of getting tuned up after his injury.
“He’s got plenty of time. He’s going to do it. All he needs is to relax a little.”