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PRO BASEBALL / JEFF FLETCHER : Mariners Do Right by Willard

Jerry Willard has been riding the major-league-to-triple-A shuttle for most of the last 11 years, but none of those seasons have been as successful as this one.

Willard, a 34-year-old catcher from Hueneme High and Oxnard College, is hitting .311 with 20 home runs and 71 runs batted in at Calgary, the Seattle Mariners’ triple-A affiliate. Willard has had seasons in which he hit better than .300 and he has had seasons in which he hit 20 homers, but they were never the same seasons.

But the best part for Willard is the Mariners gave him what he felt was an honest shot at the majors.

Unlike the Atlanta Braves last year.

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“I don’t think I was treated fairly by the Braves,” Willard said. “The worst mistake I made was going back to the Braves.”

Willard, who drove in the winning run for the Braves in Game 4 of the 1991 World Series, left the team as a free agent in 1992. He rejoined the Braves in 1993.

Although Willard had a good season at Richmond, Va., hitting .318 in 107 games, he heard through sources in the organization that the Braves had no intention of calling him up, regardless of his performance.

“I thought about quitting,” Willard said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to play this year, but I just got the urge, and I was thinking about managing or coaching.”

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Willard said the Mariners approached him and left the possibility open that Willard might coach in the system. The team also gave him a shot at the major leagues.

“I was thinking about going there and contributing as best I could and if things didn’t work out playing, I would hope to get a job coaching,” Willard said. “We talked about it before the season started. They said let’s just see what happens. They said show me a good attitude and we’ll see what happens. I’ve been doing just that.”

Willard has spent 14 days with the Mariners this year, and he has one hit--a game-winning three-run home run.

With the major league strike, Willard’s chances of returning to the majors this season seem slim. He no longer even worries about being a major league starting catcher. As a quality left-handed hitter, he would be happy as a backup catcher. He said he also might play in Japan.

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An uncertain future is nothing new for Willard, though. “I have been wandering and looking for a break for a lot of years now,” he said.

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Streaking: Damon Buford picked the wrong time to get hot, just as the major leagues were preparing to shut down for a strike.

Buford, center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles’ triple-A team in Rochester, N.Y., recently had a 19-game hitting streak snapped. He hit .345 during the streak, raising his average to .269.

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Buford’s average had been as low as .220 early in the year. He attributed the slow start to moving between Rochester and the Oriole bench. Buford, a Birmingham High graduate, began the season in Baltimore but was sent down April 17. He went back up May 10 and back down May 21. Back up June 14 and down June 15.

Dizzy? Now try to hit a baseball.

“I am actually glad that I came down to play,” said Buford, who had spent most of his time on the bench with the Orioles.

Buford’s chances of sticking with the Orioles might improve next year because Mike Devereaux will be a free agent. If the Orioles don’t re-sign Devereaux, an outfield position would be up for grabs and Buford would be among the players given first shot.

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“It would seem like that,” he said, “but it’s one of those cases where you never really know what’s going to happen, so you have to be patient.”

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Spell it D-E-R-E-K: The Chicago Cubs appear to have found Derek Wallace’s path to the majors, and it runs through the bullpen.

Wallace, a Chatsworth High graduate and first-round pick out of Pepperdine in 1992, was moved from the starting rotation to the closer role at double-A Orlando two months ago, and he pitched well enough to earn a promotion to triple-A Iowa on Wednesday.

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“As a starter I was having trouble with my changeup, and after about three or four innings the hitters would time my fastball and they would start getting to me,” Wallace said, “but as a closer you can come in and pretty much use two pitches.”

Wallace was 2-9 with a 5.74 earned-run average at Orlando, but after he became the closer he posted a 2.91 ERA and converted eight of 10 save opportunities. Wallace gave up two runs in one inning in his first triple-A outing Thursday night.

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Struck out: Three local players were sent down to the minor leagues just before the strike, allowing them to continue playing--and continue getting paid.

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The Philadelphia Phillies sent catcher Mike Lieberthal (Westlake) to Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and the Angels sent outfielder Garret Anderson (Kennedy) and pitcher Andrew Lorraine (Hart) to Vancouver. All moves were made within the last week.

Another local player was more fortunate, or less fortunate, depending on one’s point of view. Third baseman Jeff Cirillo (Providence) remains on the Milwaukee Brewers’ major league roster.

While players on minor league contracts are in the majors they receive a pro-rated share of $109,000, the major league minimum salary. While they are in triple A they receive their regular minor league salary.

But Cirillo, on strike in the majors, will not be paid.

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Several other local players might miss out on September call-ups. Buffalo pitcher Travis Willis (Camarillo) and first baseman Rich Aude (Chatsworth), Ottawa catcher Tim Laker (Simi Valley, Oxnard College), Rochester catcher Gregg Zaun (St. Francis), New Orleans shortstop Mark Loretta (St. Francis) and Buford are among those most likely to be called up when rosters are expanded.

Lieberthal, Anderson and Lorraine also would have been likely to spend September in the majors.

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Short hops: Dennis Moeller (Valley College) was named pitcher of the week in the American Assn. last week. Moeller pitched five scoreless innings in three relief outings and earned two victories for the Kansas City Royals’ triple-A affiliate in Omaha, Neb. Moeller is 7-6 with a 4.13 ERA and five saves. . . .

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Laker, catching for the Montreal Expos’ triple-A team in Ottawa, was hitter of the week in the International League last week. Laker was eight for 19 with nine RBIs. Although he had not hit higher than .242 at any of the five minor league stops in which he had more than 35 at-bats, Laker is currently hitting .322 with eight home runs and 57 RBIs. . . .

Roland De La Maza (St. Genevieve, College of the Canyons) continues to tear through minor league baseball’s lower levels. De La Maza is 10-2 with a 3.24 ERA at Class-A Columbus, Ga. De La Maza, 22, was 10-3 with a 2.52 ERA last season at Class-A Watertown, N.Y., after the Cleveland Indians drafted him in June. . . .

Kevin Foderaro (Hart, Canyons) is off to a good start in his first season of professional baseball. He is 2-1 with a 2.52 ERA for rookie-level Johnson City, Tenn. Foderaro, drafted in June by the Cardinals, is doing better in the minors than he did at Brigham Young this spring, when he had a 4-3 record and a 6.05 ERA. . . .

Jeff Hook (Newbury Park, Ventura College), who signed with the Houston Astros before the draft this year, is not doing as well at rookie-level Kissimmee, Fla. Hook is 0-2 with a 5.14 ERA.

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