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WHO’S ON 2ND? : Angels Hoping that Mark McLemore Has the Grit to Replace Bobby Grich

Times Staff Writer

Bobby Grich never won an American League batting title. He batted .300 once in 15 major league seasons and barely made it halfway to 3,000 hits. No one is counting down the days until he is eligible for baseball’s Hall of Fame.

But the Angels, who found a way to replace Rod Carew without a moment’s anxiety, have no idea if they can say the same about replacing Grich.

What Wally Joyner was to Carew, the Angels are hoping Mark McLemore can be to Grich. But right now, that’s all they can do--hope.

McLemore gives the Angels younger and faster legs at second base. He’s 22 and he stole 67 bases in the minor leagues last season. Scouts say he’ll give the Angels considerably more range afield than Grich displayed in his final seasons.

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But can McLemore hit?

Grich could. With 224 career home runs, Grich retired as the American League’s second leading homer hitter among second basemen (Joe Gordon had 246 with New York and Cleveland). Presently, he ranks first on the Angels’ career home run list and second among the club’s all-time RBI leaders. He finished with a major league batting average of .269.

With McLemore this season, the Angels would happily settle for 30 points less.

“If McLemore bats .240, he’ll be a hell of an addition,” Manager Gene Mauch says.

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That belief is based on McLemore’s credentials as a fielder. He was voted the best defensive second baseman in both the Pacific Coast and Texas leagues, and Angel scout Cookie Rojas reported that McLemore improved while playing two months in Puerto Rico this winter.

“Cookie said he just got better and better,” Mauch said. “McLemore can catch balls that haven’t been caught here in years--and make ‘em look routine.”

But the glove is just part of an infielder’s equipment. With the bat, McLemore remains an unknown quantity.

In 1986, he spent half a season at Class AA Midland and the second half at Class AAA Edmonton. He batted .316 at Midland and .276 in 73 games at Edmonton. He did have problems at the plate in Puerto Rico. By the end of November, McLemore was hitting .190 for the Mayaguez Indians before rallying to finish at .260.

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“I went through five or six stances down there,” McLemore said. “I was adjusting my hands, my feet, how I held the bat, trying a number of different things.

“Finally, a few days before Christmas, I found something I was comfortable with and stuck with it. After that, I picked my average up a bit.”

McLemore has employed that same stance this spring and, so far, the results have been decent. Through the Angels’ first 13 exhibition games, McLemore is hitting .281 with 5 RBIs and a stolen base.

Mauch, however, discounts about half McLemore’s 32 at-bats.

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“Early on, he wasn’t facing top-rate pitching,” Mauch said. “He was getting hits off triple-A pitchers. I know he can hit those guys. But he’s just started facing major league arms. I’m just starting to get a read on him.”

Preston Gomez, the Angels’ assistant general manager, says McLemore is at the same stage Gary Pettis was in 1984 and Dick Schofield was in 1985.

“McLemore is going to struggle,” Gomez said. “He’s going to look horse(bleep) against some pitchers.

“But two years ago, Schofield struggled. Three years ago, Pettis struggled. Young players have to get so many at-bats before they feel like they belong.”

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Pettis batted .227 as a rookie. Schofield hit .193 and .215 in his first two Angel seasons. In both cases, defense gave the Angels reason to be patient.

McLemore could follow the same story line, Gomez said.

“If he hits .230 with the bat, he’ll hit .350 with his glove,” Gomez said. “I call him the pitchers’ best friend. The way he goes to his right or his left, you won’t see too many bouncing balls go through.”

McLemore hears these predictions--maybe he’ll hit .230, maybe .240--and doesn’t much care for them.

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“I won’t be satisfied with that,” McLemore said firmly. “I don’t want to think about that. I like to regard myself as an all-around baseball player.

“I’d like to hit better than .260. I’d like to steal 20 bases. If I do that and the Angels win the division, then I’ll have made a contribution. I’ll look back and say I did great.

“But, it’s not just Mark McLemore.”

No, it isn’t. As Gomez says, “What good will it do if McLemore hits .350 and Doug DeCinces and Brian Downing and Wally Joyner don’t do what they’re capable of?”

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But McLemore will be scrutinized and his progress closely monitored. Mauch wants McLemore to make it, but admits, “that’s asking a lot--if he can handle it.”

Mauch has already had to do some trouble shooting. Last week, he called McLemore aside for a brief lecture after detecting what he read as tentativeness on the rookie’s part.

“I got a little nervous because he looked nervous,” Mauch said. “We’re in a 9-3 ballgame with a runner on base and there’s a ground ball hit to his left. He took the easy out at first. I didn’t like that.

“I told him to be aggressive. He knows I’m a stickler for defense, but that doesn’t mean ‘Be careful.’ When the ball’s up, go get it. Go hound that sucker. Catch every pop fly you can get to.

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“Errors of commission don’t bother me. Never have. But errors of omission get to me.”

McLemore said the talk did some good.

“I was a little timid defensively,” he conceded. “I’m usually a very aggressive defensive player. I don’t know why I wasn’t. I’m not going to let it happen anymore.”

In case the experiment runs awry, in case McLemore just isn’t ready, Mauch has his contingency plans.

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One is to platoon 33-year-old Rob Wilfong with McLemore if the switch-hitting rookie falters against right-handed pitching.

Wilfong does all the little things Mauch likes. He may be the best bunter in baseball and Mauch says he “can make the double play with anybody in the world.” But Wilfong batted .189 and .219 the last two seasons. While platooning with Grich in 1986, Wilfong hit .146 after July.

If you’re going to play a .200 hitter every day, why not play one 11 years younger with twice as much speed?

Another option is another rookie, Gus Polidor, although Mauch hopes to use him in a utility role.

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And then there is the possibility of a trade. Rumors of a Glenn Hubbard-for-Urbano Lugo deal have floated around the camps of the Angels and the Atlanta Braves, but Mauch scoffs at them.

“If Glenn Hubbard can’t play for the Atlanta Braves, how’s he gonna play for me?” Mauch said. General Manager Mike Port has talked to other clubs about acquiring a veteran second baseman, but describes the dialogue as scouting in reverse. “The name that keeps coming back to us is Mark McLemore,” he said. “A lot of other clubs seem to be high on him.

“That makes me think that maybe we should consider what our own situation more closely. Maybe we can answer a lot of questions right here.”

This time last year, McLemore was preparing for the Texas League. Port knows that asking a 22-year-old to make the leap from Class AA to the majors requires faith, but says, “If lightning ever strikes three times, maybe it will happen here.

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“Mariano Duncan and Steve Sax made the jump from the Texas League. Both ran pretty well and improved with the bat once they got up here. Certainly, at this point in time, Mark McLemore has a chance to do very much the same thing.”

Angel Notes Angel pitchers Urbano Lugo, Stewart Cliburn and Sherman Corbett combined to shut out the San Francisco Giants for nine innings Wednesday, but that wasn’t enough for victory. The Angels scored once in the top of the 10th but RBI singles by Jeffrey Leonard and Robby Thompson in the bottom of the 10th gave the Giants a 2-1 win. Corbett (0-2) left with the score tied, no outs and two runners on base, winding up the loser when DeWayne Buice surrendered Thompson’s game-winning hit. It has been a tough spring for Buice, who has allowed 10 hits and 7 runs in 7 innings. “I keep looking to see what other people saw in him,” Manager Gene Mauch said. . . . Lugo allowed four singles in six innings, lowering his earned-run average to 2.08. “He was outstanding,” Mauch said. “He had a good breaking ball, a good fastball and a decent forkball.” . . . Cliburn pitched the seventh inning, yielding one hit, walking one and striking out one. . . . Devon White went 2 for 4 and scored the Angels’ only run on Brian Downing’s single. Wally Joyner also had two hits.

Mauch said the stiffness in Mike Witt’s right arm Tuesday was gone by Wednesday. . . . “JACKSON RETURNS TO ANGELS,” read the heading on the press release. No, nobody spiked Mike Port’s Quarter Pounder--Reggie’s still in Oakland. This Jackson is Ron Jackson, the former infielder who played with the Angels from 1971-78 and 1982-84. The Angels’ community relations department has hired Jackson, 33, as a speaker for group sales functions. . . . The Angels will conclude their Arizona segment of spring training today when they face the Seattle Mariners at Tempe. John Candelaria, Donnie Moore and Willie Fraser are scheduled to pitch for the Angels.


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