PRO BASEBALL / JEFF FLETCHER : Laker Found Stroke After Finding Home


Had Tim Laker just figured this out last year. . . .

Laker, a former Simi Valley High and Oxnard College catcher, hadn’t hit higher than .242 at any of the five minor league stops at which he had more than 35 at-bats. But this season he is hitting .311 with five home runs and 32 runs batted in at triple-A Ottawa.

“I’m just finally really learning how to hit,” said Laker, in his seventh year of organized baseball. “I’m getting a better understanding of what I’m doing instead of going up to the plate and just swinging.”

The irony of Laker’s success is that part of it may be attributed to him not being in the major leagues. He has spent the entire season at Ottawa. Last year, when he made several trips between Ottawa and the Montreal Expos, he spent a lot of time on the bench and hit a combined .221.


“I think last year he was a victim of circumstances where he kind of bounced back and forth between triple A and the bigs,” said Kent Qualls, Expos’ director of minor league operations. “But this year, when it was decided that he wasn’t making the big league club, we wanted to send him to triple A, where he could play consistently. He’s playing every day and that helps from a hitting standpoint.”

Laker agrees the stability has helped somewhat, but he’d still rather be in the major leagues.

“It helps getting in a groove in that sense,” he said. “But it kind of gets a little frustrating. I’m having the best year I’ve ever had and I’m still here.”

Laker, 24, who will play in the triple-A all-star game on Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn., might be having a career year, but so is Darrin Fletcher, the Expos’ starting catcher. Fletcher, who will play in the All-Star game in Pittsburgh, is hitting .289 with 10 home runs and 47 RBIs. And Fletcher’s backup, Lenny Webster, is batting .302.

“It doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere,” Laker said. “(The Expos) are winning and both catchers are doing well.”

But if Laker, always considered an excellent defensive catcher, can continue his hot hitting, the odds are he’ll find his way into the major leagues somehow, even if it’s not with the Expos.

“That’s what I’m hoping for,” he said. “If the opportunity is not here than I’ll go somewhere else. It doesn’t really matter to me where I play, as long as it’s somewhere.”

Qualls still believes Laker will make it with the Expos.

“Tim Laker is well-liked in this organization,” he said, “and we are sure he’s going to have a good career with the Montreal Expos.”


All-Stars: Besides Laker, five area players have been selected to play in the double-A and triple-A all-star games.

Vancouver pitcher Andrew Lorraine (Hart High) and outfielder Garret Anderson (Kennedy) and New Orleans infielder Jeff Cirillo (Providence) have been named to the American League squad. Laker and Buffalo first baseman Rich Aude (Chatsworth) will play for the National League team.

However, Cirillo may not play in the game, having been recalled by the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday to replace John Jaha, who was sent to New Orleans.

The only area player selected to play in the double-A all-star game, to be held Monday in Binghamton, N.Y., is El Paso shortstop Mark Loretta (St. Francis).


In this corner: West Palm Beach, Fla., relief pitcher David Eggert, a former Cal State Northridge standout, was involved in an ugly incident in the Florida State League last month.

In a game between West Palm Beach and Charlotte, a bench-clearing brawl erupted after a home-plate collision. Every player in uniform from both teams was given a two-day suspension. The suspensions were staggered so the teams could continue the season.

“It was just a melee, more or less,” Eggert said. “There were a few (punches thrown) but a lot of people were just out there trying to break it up, to get it under control.”


The hook: Stockton catcher Bobby Hughes wondered why he was getting pulled out of a game in the second inning Wednesday night, especially after he’d hit a home run in the first inning.

But Manager Lamar Johnson then gave him the news that he was going to be promoted to double-A El Paso. The Class-A Ports were well ahead in the game and Johnson wanted to give Hughes a rest before his journey to Wichita, Kan., where El Paso was playing.

Hughes, who played at Notre Dame High, was leading Stockton with 15 doubles, three triples, nine home runs and 47 RBIs. He was hitting .277.


No respect: The Seattle Mariners recalled 18-year-old shortstop Alex Rodriguez, the first pick in the 1993 draft, from double-A Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday so they could move Felix Fermin to second base, filling a troubling void.

“We already tried four second basemen and we’ve got no one in the minor leagues to come up and play,” Mariner Manager Lou Piniella told the Associated Press.

But second baseman Torey Lovullo, a former Montclair Prep standout, was hitting .315 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs at triple-A Calgary, including a recent 17-game stretch during which he hit .391.


Honors: Sarasota, Fla., pitcher Jeff Suppan, a Crespi graduate, was named June pitcher of the month in the Boston Red Sox organization. He was 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA. In 33 1/3 innings Suppan gave up 22 hits and struck out 43, but his month ended on an unusual note.

While running on June 24, Suppan passed out. Team officials held him out of a few starts while they kept an eye on him, but they couldn’t find anything physically wrong.

Suppan, who has improved to 5-6 with a 3.95 ERA, is scheduled to pitch tonight.


Moving up: Second baseman Derek Swafford, a graduate of Ventura High, was named June player of the month for Welland, Canada, of the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League, earning a promotion to Augusta, Ga., of the Class-A South Atlantic League.

A third-round pick of the Pirates mainly because of his speed, Swafford hit .190 at rookie-level Bradenton, Fla., in his first pro season last year. The Pirates kept him in extended spring training for more than two months this year, but he hit .375 with three triples and eight stolen bases in his first 16 games at Welland. He reported to Augusta on Friday.


Chergey update: Dan Chergey, a graduate of Thousand Oaks High, is still enjoying his taste of triple A, and he would like to stay for the rest of the season, despite his lack of success.

In his first five appearances at Edmonton, Chergey was 0-1 with an 18.69 earned-run average. His first effective outing was Tuesday night, when he pitched one scoreless inning, retiring the side in order.

“I’m learning how to pitch up here,” Chergey said, “while I had been getting guys out just with good stuff in Class-A ball.”

Chergey was promoted from Class-A Brevard County, Fla., to Edmonton last month as a reward for his success in the Florida State League. Chergey said he has been given no indication how much longer he’ll be in triple A.

“I have no idea,” he said. “Hopefully for the rest of the year.”