Rocker Wild in Return to Braves

Thursday, June 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ball one. John Rocker glares. Ball two. John Rocker grimaces. Ball three. John Rocker snaps angrily at the return throw from his catcher.

Ball six, and John Rocker leaves — quietly, for a change, but ever so quickly.

Rocker returned to the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday after 10 days in the minors, and it was almost as if he and his wildness never went away.

A frustrated Rocker didn't throw a strike in his very brief return to the majors, walking one and threatening to walk another before manager Bobby Cox hastily yanked him before he could do any real damage.
Kerry Ligtenberg came on to pitch out of the bases-loaded jam and get the final four outs, preserving Greg Maddeux's ninth victory as the Braves survived Rocker's latest misadventure to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-4.

Rocker got himself into trouble with his walking — and his talking — before his June 5 exile to the minors. He angrily confronted the Sports Illustrated reporter whose offseason story exposing Rocker's various prejudices led baseball to suspend him for two weeks, an incident that led some teammates to lose all patience with him.

This time, Rocker wasn't talking, at least about his performance. He was still walking, however, and now has an alarmingly high 26 walks in 18 1-3 innings.

Brian Jordan, who called Rocker ``a cancer'' on the team after Rocker was demoted to Richmond, was conciliatory, expressing hope the left-hander will regain his control and his confidence.

``I think he's trying too hard,'' Jordan said. ``I'm sure there's some pressure on him and he's trying too hard to do well. It's no different than a hitter being in a slump. Get a couple of hits, and you're out of it. He'll have a good game and he'll be out of it.''

Chipper Jones, however, suggested the Braves can't wait much longer for Rocker, even though their bullpen is thin without the injured Greg McMichael and Rudy Seanez.

``We can do it with him, or we can do it without him,'' said Jones, who hit a two-run, go-ahead homer in the fourth off an equally wild Jimmy Anderson. ``It's his choice what happens. We can't go out there and throw strikes for him.''

Before the game, Rocker talked briefly but cordially to a few reporters, expressing confidence his control problems were over. By his count, 41 of his 55 pitches during his three appearances at Triple-A Richmond were strikes.

But Rocker, who had 38 saves last season, was close to the plate on only one of his six pitches, and manager Bobby Cox seemed exasperated as anybody to explain why.

``Well, what do you think? I don't know,'' said Cox, who met with the pitcher before the game. ``I thought he held his composure well ... we'll run him out there tomorrow night if we have to.''

However, Cox must be wondering how many more nights he can take a chance on a seemingly confused pitcher who is averaging a walk and a half every inning.

``He's just off his mark,'' Cox said. ``I thought one (pitch) was right there and they missed it, I think. I don't know, it was close.''

Still, the Braves won even though Rocker remained as great a mystery as ever and Maddux (9-1) uncharacteristically allowed four runs in the first three innings, two on John Vander Wal's homer in the second.

``You expect a certain quality game anytime he's out there,'' Jones said. ``You expect him to give up one run or two or three hits. When it doesn't happen, it's a bit surprising. But here's a news flash, he's pretty human.''

The Pirates couldn't take advantage of Maddux's below-average start, never scoring after the third inning in their seventh loss in 11 games.

``Runs are nice, man,'' Maddux said, pointing to his offensive support.

Much of it resulted from Anderson's wildness. He walked the leadoff hitter in all four innings he worked, and three of the runners scored.

``I wish I could have kept us in the game because we were hitting Maddux well,'' Anderson said.

Fernando Lunar later made it a four-run lead with a two-run single in the seventh off reliever Scott Sauerbeck, runs that helped prevent Rocker's latest mishap from proving costly.

Notes: Seanez will miss the rest of the season with a torn ligament in his pitching arm. An MRI test on Wednesday found that Seanez sustained a complete tear of the medial collateral in his right elbow while working the eighth inning of Tuesday's game in Pittsburgh. ... Braves LHP Terry Mulholland reported soreness in a hamstring, so Kevin Millwood will make his second start of the series Thursday night. He lasted only 1-3 of an inning Monday in the Braves' 10-8 victory. ... Anderson has lost his last five decisions. ... Jones has a 12-game hitting streak (17-for-45, .378). ... Pirates hitting coach Lloyd McClendon was ejected in the sixth, apparently for arguing a called third strike on Kevin Young. ... Maddux is 9-0 against the Pirates since last losing to them on April 30, 1994. ... RHP Jason Schmidt, the Pirates' opening day starter, will be out 6-8 weeks with inflammation in his right rotator cuff. He isn't expected back until August.