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MINOR LEAGUE NOTEBOOK : Scarsone Sees His Way Out of Slump, Then Goes On to Thrive in Triple A

After three games with the double-A Reading (Pa.) Phillies this season, Steve Scarsone wasn’t sure if he was using the right bat--or club. The way he was seeing the ball, he might have been more effective with a 5-iron or pitching wedge.

“I thought they were throwing golf balls,” said Scarsone, a 1984 Canyon High School graduate who played two seasons at Rancho Santiago College. “Everything they threw was strikes. I was taking the good ones and swinging at the bad ones.”

Incoming pitches played tricks on Scarsone’s eyes, but this was no optical illusion: The second baseman struck out eight times in his first 11 at-bats.

A bloop single over the second baseman’s head broke his 0-for-11 spell and began a two-week stretch in which he hit .395 (15 for 38). After hitting three home runs in two days April 28 and 29, Scarsone was called up to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) and homered in his first triple-A at bat.

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His team-record 15-game hitting streak was snapped Saturday night, but going into Sunday’s game, Scarsone was batting .378 (42 for 111) with four home runs, three triples, 15 runs and 10 runs batted in for the Red Barons, the Phillies’ triple-A affiliate.

Scarsone, 25, has an explanation for his season-opening slump. After spending most of the past two seasons at Reading, he worked out with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this spring and was expecting to start the season in triple-A.

But when Mickey Morandini, who battled Wally Backman for Philadelphia’s second-base job in spring training, was unexpectedly sent down when the Phillies broke camp, Scarsone was forced to take another ride on the Reading.

“I had a little bit of an emotional letdown after getting bumped,” said Scarsone, who was promoted when Morandini was called up to the Phillies. “It was a disappointment because I worked hard, hit .430 in spring, and the Scranton manager told me I’d be with the triple-A team.

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“I tried to do too much early, but about a week into the season, things started working out. I started seeing the ball and hitting a lot better.”

Although he started for only one varsity season at Canyon, where he helped the Comanches win the 1984 Southern Section 3-A championship, and was not drafted after high school, Scarsone, a late bloomer, appears to have a good shot at reaching the major leagues.

The lanky, 6-foot-2, 170-pound infielder spent his first three professional seasons in single A and struggled at Reading in his fourth season, batting .179. He began 1990 at single-A Clearwater, Fla. but has since taken the fast track to triple-A.

“I’ve been getting a lot of press in the Scranton area and from what I’ve read, I’ve played myself into being a prospect,” Scarsone said. “I really matured at Rancho Santiago. I think if I played professionally after high school, I would have lasted about a year.”

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The Red Barons haven’t been very successful as a team--they were 17-32 entering Sunday’s game--but Scarsone is glad to be in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and the International League.

“It’s a lot different and they treat you a lot better,” Scarsone said. “Here, the clubhouses are real nice, you get food after games and they even pack your bags for you. It’s been a pleasant move up.”

Jeff Gardner, a former Estancia High School and Orange Coast College infielder, appears to be making a push to advance from triple-A Tidewater (Va.) to the New York Mets, but he isn’t getting his hopes up.

Gardner, in his sixth minor-league season and his third full season at Tidewater, took a 17-game hitting streak into Sunday’s game. He was batting .328 with 17 RBIs and had made only two errors in 49 games at second base.

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He spent a few weeks with the Mets in spring training, but he doesn’t think his solid start will earn him a promotion.

“It was a nice gesture on their part, kind of like a reward, but I don’t think that changed their opinion of me,” said Gardner, who can become a free agent after this season. “The Mets don’t have plans for me. The fact that I can go somewhere else is a little like having a second life.”

Gardner, 27, who said he considered quitting baseball last winter, has been asked many times if baseball’s plans for expansion in 1993 have kept him in the game.

“I laugh every time someone says that to me,” he said. “If you’re an expansion team, are you going to sign a 30-year-old second baseman with no major-league experience? On the other hand, if I get some big-league time in the next two years, maybe I can make it.”

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Two former Orange County pitchers with the Milwaukee Brewers’ double-A team at El Paso, Mark Kiefer and Tim Fortugno, are leading the Texas League in strikeouts.

Kiefer, a former Garden Grove High School and Fullerton College standout who suffered his first loss of the season Wednesday, is 5-1 with a 3.20 earned run average and 56 strikeouts in 62 innings.

Fortugno, a former Southern California College pitcher who is now a reliever, has a 5-1 record, 1.94 earned-run average and 56 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings.

Kiefer sat out about half the 1990 season after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.

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“I used to throw 82 or 83 m.p.h. but I’ve been throwing harder, about 86 m.p.h., since the surgery,” said Kiefer, who went 12-1 at Garden Grove in 1986. “I’ve been striking out people a lot more than I usually do. I’m not sure why. I think I’ve been more consistent with my off-speed pitches.”


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