Rookie Gregg Jefferies swinging hot bat for Mets in NL playoffs

Peter Pan has a seeing-eye bat and industrial-strength wrists, and is playing third base for the National League East champion New York Mets. You can watch him perform tonight when the Mets, tied at one victory apiece with the Los Angeles Dodgers, resume their best-of-seven playoff series at Shea Stadium. The fact is 21-year-old rookie Gregg Jefferies has a teen-age face that could have been borrowed from the movie ``American Graffiti.'' Put him in faded blue jeans and a T-shirt with a caricature of Mickey Mouse on the front and you'd swear he just walked out of a malt shop.

So far in this series, Jefferies leads both teams in batting with a .571 average. He has four hits in seven trips to the plate, including a double. New York manager Davey Johnson can't decide whether to call him into his office and praise him or buy him a lollipop and a balloon.

During one press conference, Jefferies referred to the Dodgers' 23-game winner Orel Hershiser, against whom he had just collected three hits, as ``Mr. Hershiser.'' Even the kids in Orel's neighborhood call him by his first name.

Putting a bat in Jefferies' hands is like sending Ben Franklin out with a kite and a key in a thunder storm. Basically, Gregg is what baseball calls a dandelion hitter. That is, he roots out opposing pitchers' best offerings and scatters them to all parts of the infield and outfield.

But this isn't to say that the switch-hitting Jefferies doesn't have good power. He hit six home runs in just 109 at-bats with the Mets after they recalled him from Tidewater on Aug. 27. Gregg was there to fill the roster hole left when second baseman Wally Backman went on the 15-day disabled list, but he wound up winning the regular third base job.

In fact, the National League named Jefferies its Player of the Week on Sept. 11 based on six games in which he hit .440 (11 for 25) with 8 runs scored, 2 doubles, one triple, 3 home runs, and 9 RBIs.

Asked about his consistency in both the minors and the majors, Jefferies told me: ``Other than trying to stay ready at the plate, I don't have an answer. I guess I never thought about it before. But I do have two rules: I try to wait until I get a pitch I think I can hit, and a lot of times if a pitcher is working me one way, I'll try to take him to the opposite field.''

Although Johnson seems reluctant to go out on a limb talking about Jefferies, New York batting coach Sam Perlozzo has no such inhibitions.

``There is only one answer for what Gregg can do, and it's called natural ability,'' Perlozzo said. ``There is no substitute for it. You can't teach it because I've tried.

``In spring training this year, we worked hard with Jefferies on his fielding, but we never once talked about his hitting. You find a kid with a swing like his and you leave him alone.''

Perlozzo says that because Jefferies is a bit under six feet and well under 200 pounds, people underestimate his power.

``But with the kind of quick wrists that he's got, I predict that this kid will ... have no trouble hitting 20 home runs a year on a regular basis and driving in somewhere between 90 and 100 runs.''

One thing that helped launch Jefferies as a hitter when he was still a kid was a drill his father, Rich (a scout for the Chicago Cubs), devised to improve his concentration. Working in a gym where the light wasn't that good, Rich pitched orange tennis balls with numbers on them to his son. Gregg not only had to hit the ball but call the number at the same time.

Gregg also used to swing a sawed-off bat while standing in the family swimming pool up to his shoulders in water. This was done to build wrist and arm strength, and quicken his bat speed. Since coming to the big leagues, according to Perlozzo, Jefferies has also made it a point to study the work habits of opposing pitchers.

After Hershiser shut out the Mets for eight innings in Tuesday's opener at Dodger Stadium, it was Jefferies who set the stage for a 3-2 New York win when he opened the ninth with a base hit and scored on a double by Darryl Strawberry. Reliever Jay Howell walked Kevin McReynolds, struck out Howard Johnson, and had two strikes on Gary Carter when the Met catcher hit a soft fly ball to center field that John Shelby not only failed to corral with a diving catch, but actually played into a double. Strawberry scored easily, and when Shelby made things worse after retrieving the ball by double-pumping before throwing home, McReynolds also came in with what proved to be the winning run.

The disheartening loss left the Dodgers flat mentally, according to right fielder Mike Marshall. But their mood changed quickly when they arrived for Wednesday night's game to find maybe 20 copies of a sports story prominently displayed in their locker room. It was a New York Daily News column under the byline of Mets' pitcher David Cone (20-3), who would start Wednesday night's game.

Instead of letting Dodger Dogs lie, Cone (who says he would someday like to write sports full time) made the mistake of belittling the skills of his opponents in print. He was especially tough on pitchers Hershiser and Howell.

The fired-up Dodgers, who had been 0-2 against Cone in the regular season, tore into him this time with five runs in the first two innings en route to a 6-3 victory.

With the next three games in New York, the Dodgers must win at least one to bring the series back to Los Angeles. They must also find a way to keep Peter Pan (a.k.a. Gregg Jefferies) off the bases!

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