No one has ever accused Orel Hershiser of being a "mental Gidget." Hershiser, the Texas Rangers' pitching coach, doesn't have the Ivy League degree that is becoming obligatory for employment in a major league front office, but he is one of the smart people in this game, the type of guy who could easily be a manager, general manager, or club president before he's through. But before Hershiser emerged as a big winner for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1980s, setting a big league record for consecutive scoreless innings (59), mound presence was as pressing an issue for him as it was for last night's Red Sox starter, Derek Lowe. Like Lowe, Hershiser's money pitch was his sinker. Unlike Lowe, Hershiser never summoned the media to disavow them of the notion that he was a head case.
He did, however, heed the advice of his manager, Tom Lasorda, who decided that Hershiser needed to project a different image on the mound. The first step, Lasorda decided, was to anoint Hershiser with the nickname "Bulldog."
"I grew up idolizing big league ballplayers," Hershiser said yesterday. "I wasn't sure I could pitch at this level because these guys were my heroes. I think what [Lasorda] was addressing is that I belong here, but not only do you belong here, you can succeed here, and to make you believe it I'm going to give you a nickname."
Hershiser said he's unsure how visible his uncertainty was on the mound, but acknowledged Lasorda might have seen something.
"I know what I felt like inside," said Hershiser. "I didn't feel like a conqueror. I didn't feel defeated, but I didn't feel sure of myself, that's for sure.
"He also saw great movement on my pitches and wanted them for strikes. He'd say to me, `You throw that stuff low, you'll be in the Hall of Fame. Throw it high, you'll be robbing church boxes.' A typical Lasorda quote.
"But that stuff bleeds through," said Hershiser.
Lowe's composure was sorely tried last night in the second inning of Boston's 14-6 win over the Rangers, when two infield errors put him in a world of hurt. Lowe did not respond well initially despite multiple visits by catcher Jason Varitek and one by pitching coach Dave Wallace, walking in a run and giving up a grand slam to Hank Blalock, the Rangers' impressive young slugger, with Wallace barely back in the dugout after dispensing his advice. A 3-0 lead had suddenly become a 6-3 deficit, and it mattered only to Lowe's earned run average that all the runs were unearned.
But the Sox' offense, as it has all season, bailed out Lowe again, scoring eight runs in two innings, and this time Lowe dug in his heels, allowing just one hit over his last five innings. "I knew it was on the line this game," Lowe said. "This may have been personally my biggest game I've pitched for the Boston Red Sox. Obviously the first half I've had, all the talk about trades and they're going to get rid of me and that I was a guy not worth keeping around -- a lot goes into it. And you know what? I had to pitch well."For me, this will be the best night of rest I've had in a long, long time." Lowe said he did not regret challenging the media last week on how he is perceived. He acknowledged, however, that by doing so, he subjected himself to greater scrutiny.
"A lot has gone on between my last game and today with [the media], as far as that thing on my shoulders [presumably referring to his head]. I knew they were going to be watching my every move, the good and the bad."
During that second inning, Lowe felt as if the camera was on him every second. He didn't see it, he said, but he knew it was there.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself anyway," Lowe said, "but this start, it's a situation where you push yourself in a corner, you kind of have to see what you're made of. Are you going to wilt or are you going to try and stand up and fight?"
Score this one a TKO for Lowe. "He bent," Texas manager Buck Showalter said, "but he didn't break."
Mound presence, Hershiser said, is a regular topic with his pitching staff.
"We talk about it a lot," he said. "Mainly about the intimidating factor of looking like you're in control no matter what's happening around you. Don't give the hitter confidence that you're on your heels when you can project something like, `I'm in control, everything I do has a purpose, the game is not moving fast around me, this is my time.' Then the hitter is part of your game, rather than you being part of his.
"There are so many separators in this game, once you get to this level. The No. 1 separator anywhere else but the big leagues is ability. Once you get to this level, the separators are more subtle than ability.
"There's the subtlety of holding runners on, the subtlety of having a good time to the plate. The subtlety of, can you bounce your breaking ball when you're ahead in the count? The subtlety of your mound presence, and can you read a hitter's swing, can you see when a hitter has a lot of adrenaline running through his body and know what kind of pitch can take him out of his game?
"So I think mound presence is one of those subtle separators. We see guys who send off a message by their body and mound presence that makes players behind him play better. They say this guy is really into the game, I really want to win for him, I really want to be tuned in to every pitch. So you get better defense played behind you, you get your offense coming in a little more energized. You can be getting your rear end kicked out on the mound, but guys may come in and get some runs because you went about it with a feisty attitude."
Call it Gidget with an attitude. It just might work for Lowe.