Pettis Is Giving American League the Runaround in September

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

They shined a bright light in the face of Gary Pettis, pushed a microphone to his mouth and closed in on him like autograph hounds seeking out Bruce Springsteen.

Pettis glanced up from his locker stall, spotted the crush of cameras and pens and notepads, and did a double-take.

“What happened? Did somebody do something?” he deadpanned.

Yeah, Gary, somebody did.

In the Angels’ 12-4 victory over Texas on Sunday at Anaheim Stadium, the Angels’ leadoff batter became the second player in the franchise’s history to steal 50 bases in a season, continued to ravage Ranger pitching with his second straight three-hit performance, continued to treat September the way Reggie Jackson treats October and added yet another acrobatic catch to the portfolio that will soon be studied by those who designate Gold Glove assignments.

This catch was more a pratfall than one of Pettis’ regular bounds through space and over fences. Losing a shallow fly by Pete O’Brien in the sun, Pettis fell on his back but maintained enough of a bead on the ball to reach up and grab it for the final out of the third inning.

That moment sort of summed up the month Gary George Pettis is enjoying. Even when things go wrong, they go right.


“I think Gary Pettis is having more fun at the ballpark now than since he first made the big leagues,” Angel Manager Gene Mauch said.

For Pettis, fun translates into running. Running into second on a stolen base attempt. Running around the infield on another extra-base jaunt. Running into the gap to rob another opponent of another hit.

So far, Pettis’ running has produced this: 16 steals in his last 17 tries, a total of 51 steals for the year, a .385 batting average (20 for 52) in September and a season average of .260--up from .227 in 1984.

The 51 stolen bases are the second-highest single-season total in Angel history, behind only Mickey Rivers’ 1975 output of 70. But that, Pettis says with an air of nonchalance, is no big deal.

“I expect to get 50,” he said. “If I don’t get it, I feel that I’ve shortchanged myself. I was hoping to be a little further along at this point, but things don’t always work out that way.”

Two stints on the disabled list--one for more than a month because of a sprained wrist--slowed Pettis’ pace. Fifty steals? According to Mauch, that’s a number Pettis is capable of reaching sometime around the All-Star break.

“If he ever gets on base 37% or 38% of the time, he’ll steal 100,” Mauch said. “Or more. I’m not putting any limitations on him.”

There looms the critical question about Pettis and his quest for stardom: Is he capable of getting on base with 38% consistency?

During 1984, Pettis’ first full season in the major leagues, that notion seemed a pipe dream. Pettis struck out 115 times--second only on the Angels to Jackson’s 141.

He’s still striking out in 1985--108 and counting--but when Pettis makes contact, he’s making it count more often. A switch-hitter, Pettis is batting .299 from the right side of the plate.

The difference?

Pettis shrugs and just says he feels more comfortable with a bat in his hands.

“I’m not a scientist when it comes to hitting,” Pettis said. “Sometimes you get in streaks. I’m just feeling more confident and things are starting to fall in.”

Mauch takes a more studious view.

“He’s been seeing the low, inside, tight fastball all year,” Mauch said. “But he’s not trying to fight it off and go to the opposite field all the time now. Now, he hacks at it more and is directing the ball toward left field.

“Hitting is a constant series of making adjustments throughout a career--and Gary has adjusted. He’s done it on his own.”

Credit Pettis’ time on the disabled list, however, with an assist. His injuries kept him out of the lineup, but gave him the chance to sit back and, in essence, take a crash course in the art of hitting.

“The time I had off, I made the most of,” Pettis said. “I watched the hitters who were swinging the bat the best.

“All of them had one thing in common. They were all patient and it seemed like whenever a pitch got in the strike zone, they put the ball in play. Usually, each time you’re at bat, a pitcher will give you just one pitch to hit. You better put that one in play.”

Pettis has been putting bunches of them in play lately. He had six hits this weekend--two triples and a double Saturday, a double and two singles Sunday.

Pettis is enjoying this September, to be sure, but the real gig he has in mind is some playing time in October.

A bumper sticker is pasted on the frame of Pettis’ locker. It asks the question: “Are We Having Fun Yet?”

So, Gary, what’s the word?

“Not yet,” he said, grinning and looking hopefully ahead. “That’s just a reminder.”