Among NL shortstops, Aurilia carries the biggest stick | NevadaAppeal.com

Among NL shortstops, Aurilia carries the biggest stick

NICK PETERS

Sacramento Bee

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Rich Aurilia – what’s wrong with this shortstop picture?

Nothing, really.

Whereas Rodriguez, Jeter and Garciaparra are regarded among the elite of slugging American League shortstops, the San Francisco Giants’ Aurilia has a rightful claim as the most offensive in the National League.

You can look it up.

Aurilia’s 22 homers and 80 RBI might appear meager compared to the slugging totals of Rodriguez (42-111), Garciaparra (27-104) and Jeter (24-102), but he’s the clout king of N.L. shortstops.

Only Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds came close in 1999, batting .293 with 12 homers and 75 RBI. Jose Hernandez had 19 homers and 62 RBI. Mark Grudzielanek batted .326.

”Offensively, I’d say I surprised myself a little,” says Aurilia, who also batted a solid .281. ”I hadn’t played that much (150 games) before, so I didn’t know what to expect.

”If you had told me in spring training that I’d finish with 22 homers and 80 RBI, I probably would have disagreed with you. But I think I can do better than .281.”

So, why doesn’t Aurilia get more respect?

He patiently waited his time against Shawon Dunston, Jose Vizcaino and Rey Sanchez in 1996-98 before setting San Francisco shortstop records for homers and RBI last year.

But a dark cloud hovered over Aurilia’s 1999 success. His 28 errors were the most by a major-league shortstop, a position where offense is regarded as a bonus and defense the key to longevity.

”It’s a lot different game for shortstops now with guys like Jeter, A-Rod and Nomar,” Aurilia points out. ”But defense is still the most important thing, and I had a bad year.

”It was my fault. I have no excuses. If anything, I’d done too much lifting and I just felt tight all season. It affected my throwing, and that’s where I made most of my errors.”

Aurilia didn’t mention a troublesome groin pull, the windy and dusty conditions of the infield at Candlestick or even that second baseman Jeff Kent’s range was limited by injuries.

And it isn’t as if he were a complete disaster afield. He ranked sixth in fielding percentage (.957) among shortstops starting more than 125 games. Larkin was tops at .978.

Only Neifi Perez of the Rockies had more total chances (755-657) and more double plays (124-97). Only Perez (481) and Rey Ordonez (416) of the Mets had more assists than his 411.

”I just have to do better,” says Aurilia, 28. ”I was never really comfortable defensively last season. I wasn’t pressing. It was just that tightness.

”I tried to change some things and it didn’t help. If one thing is wrong, you try to adjust, and there’s a snowball effect. But you learn from your mistakes, so this year will be better.”

He also reminds that he didn’t earn his starting job based on offense. When he staved off Sanchez’s challenge in 1998, Aurilia made merely 10 errors and had a .979 fielding percentage in 122 games.

”I definitely plan on being more consistent on the field,” Aurilia concludes, ”and I’ve never felt my offense compensated for defense. I’ve always prided myself on my fielding.

”I’ve proven I can play defense – that’s what a shortstop has to do. But, I must admit, having the good year with the bat made it a little easier to handle.”

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)