Houston and St. Louis were expected to battle for the National League Central title. The addition of manager Dusty Baker to the Chicago Cubs’ strong, young pitching has so far vaulted the Cubs into the mix.
And now Cincinnati is trying to make it a four-team dogfight.
The Reds were 5-13 after getting swept in an April 19 doubleheader against Montreal (in Puerto Rico). Cincinnati made seven roster moves after the game, and the team then won 13 of 18 (through Friday).
None of the new faces played a big role, but the message was clear.
“I remember when I was in the minors,” left fielder Adam Dunn said, “that's what I wanted to do — take somebody's position — and I know there are people down there thinking the same way. I think it made people not get so relaxed, thinking they couldn't be sent down or sent out. If you're not performing, it'll happen.”
Can the Reds stay in the race? They think so, because of the way they have been winning games. Of their 18 victories (through Friday), nine were by one run and five by two runs. And Cincinnati has won 10 times in its final at-bat, including six “walk-off” wins — two in last week's four-game sweep of St. Louis.
“When you play a lot of close games early,” said Aaron Boone, who hit last Monday's game-winning homer, “I think it prepares you for the middle of the season when, hopefully, you're in the race. That's what I remember from (a 96-win season in) 1999. We learned a lot from being in those games all the time.”
Said reliever Gabe White: “I think that's going to be the story of this club the whole year. We've done that so many times this year already. We don't ever quit.”
Florida is dealing with an ugly rash of pitching injuries. Star A.J. Burnett required reconstructive elbow ligament (“Tommy John”) surgery; hot lefty Mark Redman suffered a broken thumb trying to bunt in a game at Arizona; and now prize youngster Josh Beckett has an elbow strain.
The loss of Burnett — who last year averaged 109.5 pitches per start — has fingers pointing at multiple scapegoats. While the front office could use it as ammunition to replace pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, Burnett went public with a “rumor” that some members of the organization knew more than a year ago that Burnett had a bone spur in his elbow but did not pass the information along to Arnsberg and manager Jeff Torborg.
“I don't think they would do anything like that,” Burnett said of the front office. “But when you hear something like that, whether it's true or not, you want to find out. People have their own opinions but I don't think I was overused. I don't think my pitch counts were too high. I wouldn't change a thing.”
It seems likely someone will pay with his job for all this, in contrast to, say, St. Louis. The Cardinals currently have five pitchers on the disabled list, and — even ignoring the reversal in the development of one-time prospect Rick Ankiel — the Cards have quite a history of pitching injuries. Mike Matthews, Matt Morris, Woody Williams, Garrett Stephenson, Andy Benes, Steve Kline, Bud Smith, Mike James and Mike Timlin were on the DL at some time last season.
BURNT BY BEANE
A number of general managers are upset with Oakland's Billy Beane as the result a forthcoming book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” The book, written by Michael M. Lewis after he was given inside access to Beane's dealings, was excerpted last month in the New York Times Magazine.
That excerpt, and presumably the rest of the book, includes trade talk that other general managers surely thought private and makes Beane look pretty proud of himself.
“It's called ego-itis,” White Sox GM Ken Williams said. “When the ego weighs more than the brain and swells, it affects your powers of memory and recall.
“If I would have written that book, I would have started out by giving thanks to my director of scouting and that staff for drafting people like Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada.”
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Four times this season, Houston has fielded an infield of four players with the same first name: first baseman Jeff Bagwell, second baseman Jeff Kent, third baseman Geoff Blum and shortstop Adam Everett — whose full name is Jeffrey Adam Everett.
• White Sox general manager Ken Williams, on calls to fire manager Jerry Manuel: “People look for instant gratification, but I don't make instant changes. I look at the big picture. People are pointing fingers at our staff, but the players have to come through. Ultimately, really, it's the players.”
• Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi, on moving struggling closer Kelvim Escobar to the rotation (a move the Blue Jays hope might attract some trade interest): “It's not panic. What can we panic about? This is what we have, and we have to make the best of it. I don't think it's panic; I think it's adjustment.”
• Mark McGwire, to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “There hasn't been one time when I've stepped back and had the itch to put a uniform back on. It was funny, watching what (Michael) Jordan did this year. All the things he was saying were what I was saying that last year: ‘I'm not myself. I'm playing hurt. I can't do what I'm capable of doing.’ ”
• Los Angeles catcher Paul Lo Duca on the team's struggling offense: “I think it gets brought up too much by everybody, including us. Just go out and get it done, and then we won't have to talk about it.”
• Anaheim went into the weekend averaging 37,116 tickets sold per game — 1,443 more than Los Angeles’ average. Since coming into existence in 1961, the Angels have never outdrawn their northern neighbors.
• Cleveland's bullpen went into Saturday's game with a 1-10 record, 11 blown saves in 16 chances and a 4.74 ERA.
• Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina became the first pitcher to win his first seven starts since Randy Johnson in 2000, the first in the American League since Baltimore's Ben McDonald in 1994.
• When Detroit's Dmitri Young hit two homers and two triples Tuesday at Baltimore, he became the first player since Willie Mays in 1958 to hit a pair of each in the same game. The only others to do so were Lou Gehrig in 1928 and Cleveland's Lew Fonseca in 1929.
• Oakland. Friday's victory was the Athletics’ 11th in 14 games.
• Minnesota. Offense has come alive this month.
• Sammy Sosa. Cubs slugger, out with sore toe, has one home run since April 20.
• Colorado. Went into Saturday's game at Florida 1-6 on the trip, outscored 41-28.