Pedro Astacio was destined for stardom. There were predictions of 20-victory seasons. Cy Young awards. Who knows, maybe Cooperstown.
"No one could continue the pace he started with," said Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president, "unless your name is Fernando Valenzuela."
Yet who could have envisioned three years later that Astacio would become the worst pitcher in the Dodger rotation, leaving his starting job in jeopardy?
Moments after the Dodgers' 11-7 loss Thursday night to the Pittsburgh Pirates in front of a paid crowd of 9,869 at Three Rivers Stadium, Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said he's considering yanking Astacio out of the starting rotation.
"We're going to have to see what our options are," Lasorda said. "We're going to have to talk about it. I don't know what we'll do right now. I really don't know."
Will Astacio even make his next start?
"I can't answer that yet," Lasorda said.
Just as no one in the organization could provide answers to whether Astacio will be in the rotation next week, in the bullpen, or even in triple-A Albuquerque, no one has any clues to the mystery behind Astacio's struggles.
This is a guy who pitched five shutouts in his first 11 starts. He won 19 games in his first 42 starts. He led the Dodgers with a 14-9 record in 1993, and was 7-3 with a 1.92 earned-run average his last 11 starts.
Now, look at him.
Astacio has won only once in his last 19 starts. He's 1-5 with a 4.55 ERA this season, lasting only four innings Thursday. He yielded eight hits and five runs (four earned), including a three-run homer to No. 8 hitter Carlos Garcia.
"Right now, it's just working on his mind," Dave Wallace, Dodger pitching coach, said. "He's pressing. He's thinking too much. He's totally frustrated, and it's snowballing.
"He's struggling with himself, and you search so hard, and sometimes the answer is right in front of you. It's the first time in his career that he's struggled in the major leagues, and he's having a difficult time handling it."
Astacio, 25, certainly has a major league arm. Scouts rave about his fastball, curveball and changeup. In fact, only six times in his 10 starts this season has he given up more than three runs. Yet he manages to pitch just well enough to lose.
"Today, I just kept throwing the ball up," Astacio said, "and anybody can hit it when I throw the ball up. The curveball was up. The changeup was up. The fastball, too, was up.
"You can't get anybody out that way, but I'm not worried, I'm going to forget about it. You can't do anything to change this game, so I'll get ready next time."
Astacio was then informed there might not be a next time. The Dodgers listed a slew of possibilities. They could instead start left-handed reliever Omar Daal. Or go to triple-A Albuquerque and bring up Chan Ho Park or Mike Milchin or Mark Mimbs or Jose Parra.
"It's a down streak," Claire said, "but not a gigantic one. He pitches with emotion, and he needs to turn that emotion around."
Astacio's emotional fluctuations perhaps are responsible for one of baseball's statistical oddities:
Astacio has eight shutouts, but he is 18-27 with a 4.29 ERA when he doesn't pitch a shutout.
"That tells me that the overall pitching is there, but the consistency is not there," Claire said. "It also tells you about Pedro.
"He's a very emotional type of pitcher, and he feeds off that emotion and excitement. Once it gets going, it can carry over, but the bottom line is that he's got to turn around the emotional roll that he's on now."
Astacio--who last won consecutive games on June 19 and June 25, 1994--unraveled this time in the fourth inning. Trailing 1-0, Astacio opened the fourth by giving up a single to Dave Clark, a walk to Mark Johnson, a run-scoring double to Mark Parent and a three-run homer to Garcia, who had a career-high six runs batted in.
Lasorda pulled Astacio for pinch-hitter Chad Fonville in the fifth. The Dodgers (22-24) scored their most runs in a defeat this season, but it proved to be inconsequential.
One night after the Pirates set a Three Rivers Stadium record by striking out 16 times against Dodger starter Hideo Nomo, they produced a season-high 11 runs, including 13 hits and five for extra bases.
"I can't explain it," Dodger catcher Mike Piazza said. "I don't think any of us can."