Baseball: La Russa's pitch falls short

IT MUST be hard for Tony La Russa to think that only three years ago his Oakland Athletics were being written up as the new dynasty of baseball.

Though the talk was of the slugging power of Jose Canseco, with his speeding tickets, illegal handguns and public quarrels with his wife Esther, and Rickey Henderson, the base- stealing king with an extra helping of attitude, the manager knew that it was his trio of overpowering starting pitchers, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch and Mike Moore, whose 20-victory seasons had done most to take the club to three consecutive World Series.

What was more, the team's pitching future was in safe hands, with Todd Van Poppel, an 18-year-old fastball phenomenon, signed straight into Oakland's minor-league system on a record dollars 1.2m (pounds 810,000) contract for a high-school graduate.

The dynasty is looking ragged now. Stewart and Moore have moved on, Welch is 7-7 this year and La Russa's recent blooding of Van Poppel has left the young Texan bloodied and bowed. All three of Van Poppel's starts have ended in defeats for the last-place A's, and his earned run average stands at 12.86, the worst in the American League.

With the team showing no sign of closing the gap on the leaders in the AL West, La Russa, who covets his reputation as one of the game's most astute tacticians, last week made the revolutionary move of abolishing his starting rotation. Instead of giving one starter the chance to pitch a whole game, now a detail of three were assigned to the job, with no one allowed to throw more than 50 pitches.

'I think it's our best shot,' La Russa said. 'We'll see what happens.'

Uppermost in the manager's mind was the need to protect Van Poppel, who would now be released from the pressure to secure a win every time he went out to pitch.

Seven days on, one win and six defeats later, the verdict has to be not proven. La Russa himself has refused to comment, but others have questioned the rationale behind the protection of his rookie.

'We're putting too many limits on pitchers, not allowing them to throw enough,' said Leo Mazzone, pitching coach with the Atlanta Braves, who possess perhaps the best rotation in the major leagues.

'When we brought Steve Avery up from the minors, he got burned real bad, going 3-11 in 1990. But our theory was, you're in the major leagues now, you're expected to go out there and perform. And through that adversity Avery developed into one of the best left-handers in the game.

'When coaches say they are protecting pitchers, they are really protecting themselves.'