Piazza Trying to Fix His Woes With Throws
By Laura Price-Brown
Chuck Knoblauch he is not.
But imagine allowing a half-dozen stolen bases in one night and 10 in two days. It's enough to worry Mike Piazza, even if he is far from being as spooked as Knoblauch, the former Yankee whose throwing yips at second base turned him into an outfielder. The Mets' All-Star catcher joked that he's not quite ready for the analyst's couch, but he doesn't dismiss his difficulties behind the plate.
"You can't play this game when you're doing something not to make a mistake," he said.
Only Tony Clark's pinch-hit three-run home run in the eighth Friday night and Armando Benitez's meltdown yesterday afternoon deflected attention from Piazza's erratic arm. Manager Art Howe twice refused to discuss the subject with reporters, but Piazza is facing it head-on.
"I have a tendency to get my steps long and not have a good transfer, not get a good grip. But I'm going to keep working on it," Piazza said. "I owe that to my team and myself, as well, to try to get back on track and at least be a little more consistent."
He started his mini-therapy yesterday, throwing before batting practice and listening to suggestions from bullpen catcher Nelson Silverio, who wants to see Piazza raise his glove-to-hand transfer and shorten his footwork.
Piazza's first throw, which nailed Luis Castillo in the first inning, was a one-hopper inside the right corner of the bag. Steve Trachsel did his part by keeping Castillo honest with four throws to first.
The scene was more frightening 12 hours earlier. With Al Leiter on the mound Friday night, Florida runners stole a season-high six bases - four in one inning - as Piazza's arm betrayed him. One throw hit the pitcher's mound and bounced twice. Another sailed into the outfield. Yet another bounced into centerfield. So even though the Marlins succeeded on 4 of 6 steal attempts in yesterday's 6-5 victory, Piazza's plays were less, well, dramatic.
Marlins manager Jeff Torborg feels Piazza's pain even as he flashes the green light to his flying fish.
"I remember when I was catching Sandy [Koufax], [Lou] Brock stole two bases on us in one game," said Torborg, a former Dodgers catcher. "It's frustrating and it angers you."
Still, he's not about to give Piazza and the Mets' pitching staff a break. Lacking big bats, the Marlins continued their relentless assault on the basepaths. Surprisingly quick 6-5, 230- pound first baseman Derrek Lee stole his seventh and eighth bases of the season, Juan Encarnacion his seventh and Ivan Rodriguez his fourth.
In the sixth, Piazza failed to get Encarnacion with a high toss to second, but he managed to retire Alex Gonzalez at the plate on a botched squeeze play to end Florida's three-run rally.
Torborg said his Marlins, the major-league leaders with 177 stolen bases last season and 38 this season, are not picking on Piazza.
Stealing bases successfully, he said, requires studying pitchers, not catchers. In meetings before every game, the Marlins determine whom they can run on by studying the pitcher's delivery times to the plate. With anything slower than 1.3 seconds from the time the pitcher makes his first move, Torborg said, "we get rolling." Trachsel's times clocked from 1.2 to 1.4 seconds yesterday, according to Torborg.
Torborg did admit to exploiting Piazza's difficulties Friday. The Marlins have an 87-percent success rate against a player Torborg considers a future Hall of Famer.
"He's even trying so hard that I think he's pressing a little bit," Torborg said. "But, yeah, whatever you can do, when you're in the other dugout, you're trying to do what you can to score or advance runners. That's what we try."
Mets general manager Steve Phillips characterized Piazza's struggles as nothing more than a rough patch. "You don't bet against Mike Piazza," he said.
Piazza certainly doesn't. While acknowledging his confidence has been shaken, Piazza said no one should fear he will retreat into a shell. The way to deal with these things, he said, is "you go back to school, so to speak."
He said he will continue to throw before games and at some point might consider soliciting advice from the team's new psychologist, Fran Pirozzolo, who worked with the Yankees when Knoblauch was in pinstripes.
"I don't think I'm quite there yet," Piazza said. "Obviously, you don't have to do it in a formal way. There's casual conversation; maybe there's something he can tell you to just allow you to relax, but you try to draw on your experience and what has worked in the past. Motivation is not a factor because it's a definite pride thing that you have to try to keep improving."
So there won't be a couch parked in front of Piazza's locker anytime soon? "Well," he said, smiling, "don't give me any ideas."
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