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Phillies fading?

| Friday, June 22, 2001

Some questions just hang out there, the answers known only to the gods of baseball, if that.

Such as: If Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon says Derek Bell looked a little 'dizzy' to him Thursday afternoon, how in the world could he have possibly known•

Or: If phony wrasslin' champ Kurt Angle had shown up at Pirates batting practice at PNC Park yesterday in any of his many previous identities (college wrestling champ, Olympic gold-medal winner, TV-53 sports anchor) would he get even a fraction of the big-shot treatment he got as a reigning WWF villain•

These were the great imponderables hanging over the rubber-game of the three-game showdown between the Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, and so was this: Are the Phillies as shaky as they've looked in this series and are they headed for a quick fade from the NL East race•

I'd say, yes, but we won't know for a couple of months. In the interim, we can concentrate on something not quite so imponderable: Have the Pirates done anything right this season that will help them in the future, and, if so, what is it•

Yes. They have installed Aramis Ramirez as their third baseman and No. 5 hitter and more or less left him there.

Symbolic proof of that was available Wednesday when the Pirates lost an ugly game to the Phillies and Ramirez was the only player in the original lineup who started and finished the game playing the same position. In contrast, Pirates captain Jason Kendall started in left field, moved to right and finished up catching.

OK, some games are like that and it's not as if there's another position where you would like to see Ramirez, except maybe first, and the Pirates have an abundance of first-base types.

What they also have is a legitimate third baseman who should remain at that spot for as long as he plays in Pittsburgh. They haven't been looking for one of those since the days of Don Hoak, but it does seem that way. Even during the pennant-winning seasons of 90-92, the Pirates had four third basemen - Bobby Bonilla, Wally Backman, Steve Beuchele and Jeff King.

The Ramirez era hasn't exactly been one long uninterrupted streak, either. After being rushed to the majors when he was 19 in 1998, the Pirates have used Ed Sprague, Ramirez, Luis Sojo, Ramirez again, Mike Benjamin and, finally, this season, Ramirez once again. Even Keith Osik got in nine games at the position last season.

This yo-yo treatment has undermined many promising Pirates careers (Jose Guillen and Chad Hermansen, most notably), but Ramirez seems to have understood what was happening to him every step of the way from Pittsburgh to Nashville. To Pittsburgh. To Nashville. To Pittsburgh.

'I was not confused,' Ramirez said. 'Things just weren't working out for me like I wanted, but I can't control that.

'Just when you get the chance, you play as hard as you can.'

That has been the knock on Ramirez - it appears as if he's not playing hard. He doesn't have good speed and he had a habit of losing focus when playing infield.

'He's getting better,' McClendon said. 'But he still has his lapses. I have to continue to push him.'

He's evolving into the kind of hitter you want to see up there in a two-out situation with men on base. He was handed the No. 5 spot this year with the stipulation that he do a better job of driving in runs and he has. His 42 runs batted in leads the team.

'There's no reason to put pressure on yourself,' said Ramirez, who turns 23 on Monday. 'Just get your focus and try to hit. You can think too much.'

No one's accused him of that lately, not even in the field. The confidence he displays at the plate has carried over. He's good and should get better. He's slow, but like a lot of good third basemen he's got a good first step.

'He's a young kid and we have to continue to teach him at this level,' McClendon said. 'He's still a pup.'

A pup worth savoring for a change.

Bill Modoono is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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