The Los Angeles Dodgers began the year with two Cy Young Award winners and a returning 15-game winner who led the major leagues with eight shutouts last season. But neither Orel Hershiser, who is out for the season because of rotator cuff surgery, nor Fernando Valenzuela, who has been ordinary, nor Tim Belcher, who is hurting, has emerged as the ace of the staff.
Instead, that title has been seized by a skinny, 22-year-old Dominican with a soft voice and a childlike smile. The Dodgers and the rest of the National League are discovering that, appearances aside, Ramon Martinez is one mean pitcher.
"He always has this smile on his face and when he's out there on the mound he's just like a kid having fun," Dodgers pitching coach Ron Perranoski said. "I told him, 'Ramon, don't you ever change.' He's a real nice kid."
Martinez has made a practice of throwing the game ball into the stands whenever he pitches a complete-game win. But when he beat Atlanta, 5-2, Monday night, he handed the ball to a boy near the Dodgers' dugout.
"He was cute. Why not?" he said.
The victory improved Martinez' record to 9-3. He struck out nine batters without walking one. He leads the major leagues with 121 strikeouts and is on a pace to finish with 282. In Dodgers history, only Sandy Koufax has struck out more than 262 batters in a season. And Martinez already tied Koufax' club record for strikeouts in a game when he whiffed 18 Braves on June 4. His fastball was regularly clocked at 96 mph in that game.
Martinez' velocity is unusual considering he is 6-4 and 175 pounds -- not much thicker than when the Dodgers signed him when he was 16. "I don't know where he gets it from," Perranoski said. Martinez throws two fastballs: a sinking fastball and another that breaks away from right-handers with the action of a slider. He is just beginning to develop a good feel for a curveball.
"Once he gets the consistency with his curveball, then he'll really be something," Perranoski said. "He's so deceptive because he's long and gangly. When he starts to warm up, I don't even want to look at him ... he throws from around the hip and throws the ball eight feet high. But he gets it together in time."
Not since Dwight Gooden in 1984 has such a pitching prospect arrived at such a young age and with such good stuff. And, like Gooden, Martinez has been immediately comfortable with the responsibilities of being an ace.
"Maybe he doesn't even know who Hershiser is," Perranoski said. "There's just this aura about him. Deep down, I'm sure he knows who Orel is. But he doesn't show any signs of any of this bothering him."
One warning here: the Dodgers ought to be very careful about letting Martinez throw so many innings at such a young age. (He threw 399 pitches in his past three starts over 10 days, he leads the league with five complete games, and he is pitching in a four-man rotation.) They have seen Valenzuela and Hershiser blow out their shoulders and now Belcher's shoulder is ailing.
"(Belcher) just doesn't feel right," Perranoski said. "He just doesn't have his consistent zip. So far, we haven't been able to pinpoint it."
Belcher said he hasn't felt right all year and thinks it goes back to the lockout. Remember, Belcher threw a complete-game, three-hitter his first time out after the short spring.
"You know, the owners can take the lockout and shove it," he told Los Angeles writers. "It was the worst mistake the owners have ever made in their lives."
Padres looking ahead: The disappointing Padres dropped a hint about their chances of catching the Reds Monday when Manager Jack McKeon told shortstop Garry Templeton on Monday that he was being replaced by Roberto Alomar, who had been playing second base. Bip Roberts will play second base.
Templeton was hitting .264 with 28 runs batted in, but he is 34 and has troublesome knees that limit his range. McKeon, who said he hoped the changes would be "forever," thought it was time to look beyond this one-sided pennant race.
"I've got to look down the line," he said. "It's not like we're a half-game up or a half-game down. We're 10 games out. We have to face reality."
In his first game as the second baseman of the future, Roberts botched a sure double-play ball that helped put San Diego down, 4-0, in a game won by Houston, 5-3.
Musical chairs: George Steinbrenner fires managers so often that it has become a trivial event. So consider these managerial minutiae:
--Steinbrenner has changed managers 18 times in 18 seasons of owning the Yankees. The Dodgers franchise has changed managers 15 times since 1899.
--Bucky Dent became the first manager Steinbrenner fired on a Wednesday. The scorecard: Sunday 6, Monday 4, Tuesday 2, Wednesday 1, Thursday 1 and Friday 4. Saturday has been his day of rest.
--Dent's 89-game tenure dropped the average length of service of a Steinbrenner manager to 144 games. Since the Yankees last won anything, in 1981, it is 122 games.
One Yankee came up with an interesting theory about Steinbrenner's latest change in managers and his subsequent commitment to young players: "He knows what he's doing. Look what he's done to this team. He's made sure it can't win in case he's suspended (by Commissioner Fay Vincent). That way, when he comes back, he can say that the team needs him running things."
Around the league: Yes, Mark Langston is 4-8 and, as expected, has not been worth the Angels' $16-million investment. But in his eight losses California has scored a total of five runs while he's been on the mound. In Langston's past four starts, the Angels have lost 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 and 2-0. Langston took the loss in three of those games.
Jay Tibbs, though only 28, is pitching with his sixth organization. He is not the answer to Pittsburgh's pitching problems. The Pirates should make a run for Tim Leary.
Why is it that the Cardinals can just disappear every other year and nobody questions Whitey Herzog? Since 1985, St. Louis is 282-204 (.580) in odd-numbered years and 184-209 (.468) in even-numbered years.
Gooden is 106-44 and has pitched 1,390 innings in 192 career games. Roger Clemens is 106-48 and has pitched 1,399 2-3 innings in 191 career games.