Safe at third

When Fernando Tatis' game struggled, he kept his head down and his mouth shut

But somewhere between last season and last month, Tatis lost his rhythm; suddenly, he couldn't hit a watermelon with a log. He watched as his batting average dropped at the beginning of May to .187, the lowest on the team by more than 50 points. The very first day of the season, against the Chicago White Sox, he went 0-fer at the plate, four times up and four times down; by the end of April, against the Minnesota Twins, his average was 13 points below .200. After 81 at-bats, he had gotten a hit only 14 times and driven in a mere seven runs.

Having started the season as manager Johnny Oates' everyday third baseman, Tatis suddenly found himself sharing the position with newcomer Luis Alicea, who spent last season starting at second and third for the Anaheim Angels. Until last week, Tatis hadn't played in back-to-back games since April 23-24, against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Kansas City Royals. The prospect of the future had, suddenly, become part of a two-man platoon.

"I was surprised," Tatis says of Oates' decision to bench him during the slump. "I was surprised. I talked to [Oates] every day, and he told me every time, 'I believe in you, you're going to be the third baseman.' He told me to relax, enjoy it, and be happy every day."

Rangers batting coach Rudy Jaramillo says Tatis' problems are both mechanical and mental. He points to Tatis' age and inexperience at the major-league level and says that he began slumping when pitchers discovered they could get him out with fast balls in and breaking balls away. Jaramillo discovered that Tatis had begun shifting his weight when at the plate, which caused him to lunge for pitches long after they'd blown by him. So he moved Tatis' hands on the bat and told the young hitter to swing the bat quicker; Jaramillo also squared Tatis' left shoulder to the pitcher, trying to get him to hit the ball to right more often.

"The ball's been beating him, and he doesn't recognize it," Jaramillo says. "When he transfers his weight so fast, he's about 70 percent out front, versus being 60-40 and then reacting. That's where we're at, really. He's a tough kid and held his head up here. Most people would be a headcase, and that's why I really believe he can hit up here, because he's shown me so much mental toughness through this hard time. It's all mental. He believes in me, and we have a good relationship. We trust one another. I'm real positive with him. I give him input and show him the films, and we just go from there. I'm patient with him. If he keeps an even head, it's going to come, because early in BP he does great. Now he has to carry it into the game."

Which he did against the Yankees that very May 6 night, though his small accomplishment was lost in the 15-13 defeat that came at the end of a four-hour-six-minute marathon that, at one point, found the Rangers down nine to nothing. Gonzalez, not Tatis, was the star and scapegoat that night, smashing a three-run homer and pouting like a spoiled child when, at first, a two-run single off the glove of Yanks second baseman was ruled an error. He made his displeasure known whenever he reached base, glaring at the official scorer Kurt Iverson, who sat in the press box; later, in the locker room, Gonzalez exploded at Dallas Morning News writer Gerry Fraley, asking him where Iverson was during the Knoblauch play. "In the bathroom?" Gonzalez wondered. "Taking a shit?" Some of his teammates were not amused, and even Tatis would say after Gonzalez's outburst that this can be, at times, a tense first-place team.

But Tatis ignored the tantrum, and with good reason: In the third, he smacked a ball between the shortstop and the third baseman, breaking an 0-for-11 slump. When he reached first, he wore a smile of relief; he looked like a man who just found out the governor had granted him a stay. He struck out in the fourth, then got another single in the fifth before Johnny Oates pulled him for Alicea. Though the Rangers lost, marking the first time all season they had dropped three games in a row, Tatis was all easy grins in the locker room, one of the few Rangers with anything to smile about.

"I'm just making my adjustments and just trying to help the team," he said after the game, standing in front of his locker, ignoring the clenched teeth around him. "I've just been trying too hard. I've been in a slump the whole season. Everybody knows I can hit home runs, and I'm not doing it this year. I'm just trying too hard. It's a little bit of pressure from myself. I'm not doing my job."

The next night, against the Cleveland Indians, Tatis went one-for-three; on May 9, he had the first three-hit game of his big-league career while driving in a run; the next day, he went one-for-three. (Heading into Tuesday's game, Tatis was hitting .247.) He is also, once more, Oates' starting third baseman--until he proves he cannot handle the job. Until his hot bat becomes an icicle. Until he proves he is too young to hold the job. Until...

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