When Will LaRoche Start Getting Hot?

In Los Angeles, Wilson Betemit has been bedeviled by everything from lefthanded pitchers to a plate of bad wings from room service. As a result, Manager Grady Little has been turning more and more frequently to either Ramon Martinez or Wilson Valdez as alternates at third base. At such times, quite naturally, thoughts turn to Andy LaRoche.

That case of apparent food poisoning caused by the wings was only a passing matter. The problem of Betemit's not being able to do any damage while swinging righthanded doesn't seem to want to go away. LaRoche swings strictly from the right side and is impatiently awaiting a call summoning him into the big leagues at last. That phone, though, might not ring anytime soon.

In his not-all-that-long professional career, Andy has already established himself as a guy who doesn't do much hitting in the spring. It was about this time last year when he was at Jacksonville, that there was grumbling about his inability to get going. He eventually got hot and blazed his way upward to Las Vegas where he stayed that way until a shoulder injury put him out.

That injury cost him a chance for a September call-up but he came to spring training healthy and determined to show all concerned that he was the man for third. That didn't even begin to happen. Even though Betemit's troubles prevailed throughout, Andy also didn't hit enough to cause Little to look in his direction.

That's been pretty much the case once the regular season began. Oh, he hasn't been wretched but he hasn't smoked the ball, either. As of this moment, he's batting .247 with three home runs and just eight runs batted in. Not exactly enough to demand attention.

When LaRoche is right, he can stay back on the ball and drive it out of any portion of the park. He's more of a gap hitter when he's zeroed in. But there are times when he gets impatient, overstrides trying to pull the ball and impatiently hacks. Those habits are what holds him back.

Little feels that Betemit is a much better player than he's displaying now, it's early and he's patient. And there are other alternatives if the problems continue.

There's always James Loney, who, of course, doesn't play third. However, he does play a superb first so the chorus to bring him up to play that spot and move Nomar Garciaparra across the diamond swells. The thinking is, however, that Nomar's very liable to get weary much quicker over there and they doubt his arm, in particular, would hold up for a season at third, anyway.

Right now, Loney's not hitting a heck of lot better than LaRoche with a .263 average. He hit the first pitch he saw out of the park and hasn't driven for distance since. He is hitting the ball solidly but the hits aren't falling in.

There's a third possibility in a Vegas uniform in the presence of Tony Abreu. He was a spring revelation with his added plate authority and he's kept the pace up. He's at .344 with one home run at the moment. No, he's not a third baseman by trade but he can and has played the position capably enough.

But you want power out of your third baseman which brings us back to LaRoche. Monday night he collected two hits including a double, a good sign. If he is truly starting to get with it and Wilson's woes continue, that phone might ring at last.