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TIME PROVES LUKE'S NO FLUKE PROKOPEC SUCCEEDS IN SWITCH TO MOUND.

Byline: Brian Dohn Staff Writer

HOUSTON - There were no pitchers left, so Savannah manager John Shelby summoned a young Australian outfielder to throw an inning. The kid was a defensive gem, an arm worth getting excited about, but the bat was nothing.

However, at that age, still a teen-ager, he was a prospect. Aren't they all at Single-A?

The kid looked like a natural, Shelby recalls of that summer day in 1997, serious about getting batters out rather than lobbing a few balls toward the plate. He looked good, and when the pitching chart from the game was reviewed, he looked better.

Luke Prokopec was throwing in the low-90 mph range. He could strike himself out every time, if given the chance.

``He had talent,'' said Shelby, the Dodgers' first-base coach. ``He hadn't really matured as a hitter. In batting practice, he was something to watch, but he was unable to take batting practice into a game. And watching him in the outfield, my goodness, he was one of the best right fielders I've seen. Watching him come in on a ball, he took a lot of pride in throwing people out. It was pretty.

``When the game was on the line and somebody was on third base, you would just hope they would hit a fly ball to right field and watch him (throw) him out.

``Just watching him out there (pitching for the first time), he was focused, his concentration was good. He looked like a pitcher.''

Shelby and pitching coach Mark Brewer talked. Then they talked to the Dodgers front office. Prokopec needed to pitch. Not in a week, not in a month, not next season. He needed to pitch immediately.

``I thought I was done,'' Prokopec, 23, said. ``I bawled my eyes out for half an hour. I thought they were just short a pitcher, they were going to screw around with me for a short time and then at the end of the season it was going to be, 'Pack your bags and go home.' It's kind of funny that you think the worst thing that could possibly happen to you in the world turns out to be a good thing.''

A pretty darn good thing, mate.

Thanks to Prokopec, St. Louis' Albert Pujols isn't a shoo-in for the National League Rookie of the Year award.

Prokopec is 6-1 with a 3.33 ERA entering his start tonight in Houston. By all rights, he should be an outfielder in the depths of another organization, not becoming a force on the best pitching staff in baseball.

Prokopec was a lifetime .208 hitter as an outfielder. For every walk he drew, he struck out three times. He has the same ratio this season with the Dodgers, but it works a lot better for a pitcher. He didn't walk a batter in his first three starts and he's walked 10 and struck out 38 in 51 1/3 innings.

Shelby and Brewer saw this potential, so they made the switch in midflight. Prokopec pitched 13 times with Savannah, starting six of them. He went 3-1 with a 4.07 ERA, and suddenly a new career was born.

``He's got great focus,'' Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colborn said. ``I like the way he reacts to adversity. He gets mad instead of scattered. He gets mad and his intensity level increased without losing any focus.''

It is something, Prokopec admits, to be halfway around the globe from family and have his career change at such a dizzying pace. It was like that then and it is like that now.

Prokopec was supposed to be pitching for Triple-A Las Vegas this season. He made one start there before Andy Ashby hurt his elbow. Two months later, Prokopec, proving to be ever the opportunist, has pushed his way past Eric Gagne and all but assured himself the fifth spot in the rotation when Ashby returns, possibly in less than two weeks.

``When you're going to have a winning season, things like that need to happen,'' Dodgers reliever Mike Fetters said. ``Luke Prokopec is filling that void of a person that you don't expect to get something done, and he's doing a tremendous job with the opportunity he's given. When that happens, it makes you more comfortable as a team. You're only as strong as your weakest link, and if he's the guy they thought was going to be the weak link, he's one of our strengths.''

Dodgers second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said he could tell last spring there was something special about Prokopec, a determination he made from watching him for a few innings. But his performance at the Double-A level a year ago foretold Luke's accomplishments. He was 7-2 with a 2.45 ERA.

Though neither side is eager to confirm how Prokopec landed in the major leagues last September, some say it came because Dodgers senior vice president Tommy Lasorda, who was managing the United States Olympic team, didn't want the host Australians to have Prokopec for the tournament. So the Dodgers brought him to Los Angeles, where he went 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in five games.

Although Prokopec's family was disappointed about not being able to watch him pitch for the home country in the Olympics, they have been able to listen to his performances via the Internet from their home in Renmark, Australia.

``I usually talk to them after each start just to sort of call home and say G'day, and that's an easy way to know when I'll call,'' Prokopec said. ``Mom and dad are pretty proud. They're still my strength every time I call. My dad will critique my outings when I'm in a tough spot. They'll say it's kind of weird knowing you're up in the big leagues and doing well. It doesn't seem quite right. Kind of strange coming to grips with it.''

WIN-WIN SITUATION

Rookie Luke Prokopec has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the National League. He's 6-1 with a 3.33 ERA.

DATE OPP INN H ER BB K DEC

Apr. 6 SF 7.2 4 1 0 7 W

Apr. 21 SD 6.0 6 2 0 5 W

Apr. 27 PHI 7.0 6 3 0 5 -

May 3 CIN 5.0 1 3 5 4 W

May 8 FLA 4.0 9 6 3 3 L

May 13 ATL 7.0 3 1 2 4 W

May 19 NYM 6.0 4 1 0 7 W

May 26 HOU 8.2 6 2 0 3 W

51.1 39 19 10 38 6-1

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WIN-WIN SITUATION (see text)
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:1107
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