08/02/2002 00:13 am ET
MLBeat: Seen one, seen 'em all
Howe discusses facing knucklers
By Mychael Urban / MLB.com
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Olmedo Saenz got a rare start Thursday night against Detroit because he has great numbers against a certain starting pitcher. But that pitcher isn't Steve Sparks, who started for the Tigers.
It was Saenz's recent history against Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox that earned him a spot in the lineup.
Like Wakefield, against whom Saenz is 6-for-13 with a double and a home run over his career, Sparks is a knuckleball specialist. Saenz had never faced Sparks heading into Thursday, but according to A's manager Art Howe, if you've seen one knuckleballer, you've seen 'em all.
"A guy who's has success against them seems to have success against them all," Howe explained. "And a guy who hasn't had success probably won't. Olmedo's hit Wakefield well in the past, so we'll see if he can get something done up there tonight."
Howe said he hit knuckleball pitchers well during his 10-year career in the big leagues, in part because he was a teammate in Houston of knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who helped Howe solve Joe's brother -- and fellow knuckleballer -- Phil.
"Phil wore me out the first few times I faced him, but Joe gave me a little tip that helped quite a bit," Howe said.
The tip: Crowd the plate.
"Phil didn't like that," Howe said. "I don't think any of those kinds of guys like that, because their ball moves so much it might hit a guy who's right up on the plate. Once I started doing that, I turned it around against Phil and starting hitting him pretty good."
Howe said a hitter's general approach to facing a knuckleballer should always be the same.
"They're impossible to prepare for, so you basically just have to tell yourself that if it's coming in at the belt or lower, leave it alone," he said. "Because the one thing in common every knuckleball has is that it's gonna drop. So if it's at the belt, it'll drop out of the zone. But if you get one up at your eyes or chest, it's probably going to drop right into your wheelhouse.
"Those are the ones you have to try to make your money on."
Veteran backup catcher Greg Myers, who played with knuckleballer Tom Candiotti in Toronto, smiled when asked if it was harder to hit a knuckleball or to catch one.
"Catching," he said. "When you're facing one you're only clueless for three or four at-bats. When you're catching one you have to deal with it the whole game. It can take a lot out of you.
"I've reached over for a ball that I thought was going to be to my right, and it came back and hit my left knee."
Saenz walked in his first at-bat against Sparks and singled to left in his second.
Ellis makes it easy on Eric
Eric Chavez, who didn't start Tuesday and served as Oakland's designated hitter Wednesday and Thursday because of tightness in both hamstrings, might return to his duties at third base by the weekend, but the A's are in no hurry.
"We've got the luxury of giving Eric that extra time he needs," said trainer Larry Davis.
That luxury is rookie Mark Ellis, who has started the past three games at third base and entered Thursday's game 9-for-18 with four doubles, a home run, six walks and six RBIs over the previous five games. He's hitting .338 since the All-Star break.
"The kid's getting it done," Howe said. "It's nice to have a guy like that to plug in when someone's hurting. We'll wait until Chavvy's 100 percent."
Another of Oakland's walking wounded, Ray Durham, returned to action Thursday after sitting out Wednesday with a bruised knee. He played second base and batted second in the lineup, and he looked no worse for wear in legging out a double down the right-field line in the bottom of the first
And now the bad news: Lefthander Ted Lilly, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to July 21 with an inflamed left shoulder, will not be taking the mound any time soon. Davis said Lilly still hasn't thrown a baseball since going on the DL. "I can't say he won't miss a month," Davis said "I can't say he won't miss six weeks. There is no timetable."
Barry Zito, who starts Friday, went 5-0 with a 1.66 in six July starts and will be looking to become the first 16-game winner in the American League. He's also looking for his 16th consecutive win at home; his last loss at "The Net" came on July 29 last year. Zito is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two career starts against Detroit.
Mychael Urban covers the Oakland A's for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.