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Baseball Notebook: It is written in the stars ... and here, too

Sunday, July 20, 2003

By Steve Ziants, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Apprehensive. Anxious. Unsure. The Guy In The Stands was all of those with the season's second half about to begin. He's sure Dave Littlefield knows how he feels.

What of Barry and Albert? What of the Detroit House Cats? What kind of magic can Brian Kingman and the '62 Mets possibly have left in their tanks to turn back yet another round of September challengers from among the tired, the sore, the losers, the huddled National League Central?

Then he saw it. Right here in your Post-Gazette sports section Sunday. Jeraldine Saunders' daily horoscope. Oh, blessed day. Running under a picture of knocking-kneed Jason Kendall allowing a run to slide between his shinguards. Naturally, Jeraldine saw that coming. Of course, Angry Sports Copy Editor In The Stands saw that coming, too.

That's OK. Believers overlook such things. It was a sign, praise the Ouija board. That, or the strip bar ads ran long and she got bumped out of Section H. The Guy would like to believe it's more astrological than logical.

He needs all the confidence he can get. After all, this is the same Guy who in March picked the Mets to earn the NL wild card, didn't realize racing meats had Constitutional rights and thought the only Dontrelle he'd ever hear of fronted a '60s Motown girl group. Please, hold your applause for such prescience.

But with Jeraldine having boldly gone where no horoscopist had gone before, how can The Guy help but predict the story lines -- the real and the unreal -- that will have everyone talking the second half? Just remember: These should be read for entertainment value only. They have no reliable basis in scientific fact. Unlike, of course, the French's decision to strike the phrase "e-mail" from the language this week.

Five on the serious side ...

35 years since Yaz: St. Louis' Albert Pujols leads the NL in batting (.370), is second in RBIs (88) and tied for second in home runs (28) and the Triple Crown buzz has begun. "I don't even want to think about that," Pujols says. That's OK. Others will do enough thinking if he's still close as Labor Day nears. Since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski last won it in 1967,, the White Sox' Richie Allen came closest to turning the trick. In 1972, he led the AL in homers (37) and RBIs (113) and finished third to Rod Carew in batting (.308). Pujols, however, is more likely to fall short in the power department, where Barry Bonds will be tough to overcome. Still, as Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca said of the discussion: "He's 23 years old, and that makes it even more phenomenal."

Say hey, godfather: After hitting No. 644 yesterday, Bonds needs 17 homers to pass godfather Willie Mays for third on the big hit list. Until this week, we thought that was the name with which he was most fixated. But after his lecture in Chicago, he's apparently turned catching The Babe into Martin Luther King's March on Selma. FYI: At his first-half pace, he would likely be homering for history the first week of September at home vs. Colorado or Arizona.

Harden to beat: To Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson, the A's this weekend added Rich Harden, 21 -- the phenom antithesis of Dontrelle Willis. Everyone has known he was coming. It was just a matter of when. He gets his first start tomorrow vs. the Royals after going 11-4 with a 2.74 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 101 2/3 minor-league innings. "I feel like I'm ready," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I've felt like that for a while." Like since probably all those weeks ago when he was, oh, 20.

Nice pickups: Despite starting the second half 5 games behind the Giants in the NL West, the Diamondbacks must feel pretty good. No matter what any other team does by July 31, they have already made the two biggest July "additions" simply by getting Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling off the DL. "Given the start we got off to and all the injuries and everything else, to believe that we're 10 games over .500 and only five games out of first is remarkable," Manager Bob Brenly said. It will be, anyway, if they pitch like Johnson-Schilling of 2002 and not of April-May.

Dontrelle on Dontrelle: At 9-1 and riding an eight-game winning streak into his start today, the Dontrelle Willis story doesn't seem likely to go away any time soon. "I'm so amazed," he told Mike Berardino of the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida. "I'm just a guy who just does me." Mark your calendars: Barring rotation shakeups or natural disasters, Willis is in line to do himself when the Marlins make their lone visit to PNC Park Aug. 26-28.

And five because we all rubber neck ...

House Cat fever: The Tigers. Oh, those Tigers. They are 26-69 (.274),and are a serious threat to the 1962 Mets' record of 120 losses (see chart above). Considering America's morbid fascination with disaster (see: reality TV), who's to say they won't have an entire nation pulling for them (or shouting for them to jump) come September. "To be honest, I don't think I could have withstood this," former Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson told The Detroit News. "I could see it was going to be a rough year, but -- oh, my God -- this is miserable." C'mon Spark, how about an Oh-the-humanity for the road.

King-man no more? Detroit's Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman have 13 losses in the now-annual tongue-in-arm derby to see who shall mount the annual second-half challenge to Brian Kingman's cherished legacy as last man to lose 20 games (8-20 for the 1980 A's). Kingman's web site -- www.20gamelosers.com -- has made Maroth a slight favorite. But he may not have what it takes to wear the chalk. He's gone into an inexplicable "slump" of late and actually won four of his past six starts.

Suh-wing, batter: The hitter's equivalent of The Kingman Chase is Bonding With Bobby. As in who will unseat Bobby Bonds and his 189 strikeouts (1970) as k-k-k-king of the hill. And who do we see stepping up, but old friend Jose Hernandez. Now of the Chicago Cubs, he's back for a second try at scaling Mount Whiff He likely would already be wearing the Krown but for the grace of Brewers Manager Jerry Royster, who sat him much of the final week of 2002 while sitting on 188. He has 119 Ks -- a pace for 202.

Low ball: Why were the Pirates, at nine games under .500 coming out of the break, still wondering if they were in the NL Central race? Because the division-leading Astros had the fewest wins of any leader and were not that much ahead of the pace of the 1973 Mets for fewest wins by a division champ (82) since the majors went to the setup in 1969. Of course, the Astros have since Red up on an antidote, which just might make the rest of the division ill.

Rickey does L.A.: Two months in Newark might have gotten Rickey Henderson back to the majors at age 44, but we should hardly expect it to have changed him since last we saw him crying for more chances to hit .223 in Boston last summer. "I still feel I can play the way Rickey played before," he told Jason Reid of the Los Angeles Times. And how's that? "If I had a full season and I was healthy and I was getting on base enough, yes, I could [steal 100 bases]." Pardon, but doesn't he mean Rickey could steal 100 bases?

Star dust

Leftover s from a game worthy of Midsummer Classic ... Garret Anderson is only the second Home Run Derby winner to also homer in the game the next day. The other: Cal Ripken Jr. (1991). ... Three Los Angeles/California/Anaheim Angels players have now hit All-Star homers -- Anderson (2003), Fred Lynn (1983) and Leon Wagner (1962). All hit them in games in Chicago. ... Baltimore's Melvin Mora was one of those rare players that does not have an All-Star bonus written into his contract. According to the Baltimore Sun, Orioles owner Peter Angelos authorized a $25,000 bonus, anyway. ... Phenom or star-struck kid? "My palms are sweating right now," Dontrelle Willis said Monday after getting his first taste of being an All-Star. "I don't even think I'm going to wash my hands. ... I can say I shook hands with some of the best in the game." ... Former Pirates pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Jason Schmidt were the first ex-teammates to start against each other since Bob Feller and Whitlow Wyatt in 1941.

Delay of pain

So you thought you'd seen it all after watching ESPN's mock trial of Pete Rose Thursday? Again, how this game continually proves us wrong. The start of Friday's Devil Rays-Rangers game at Tropicana Field was delayed for 19 minutes. Cause of delay: Ineligible player. Had the Devil Rays secretly bolted the American League for the Atlantic Coast Conference?

Not quite. Earlier in the day, outfielder Carl Crawford dropped his appeal of a three-game suspension for his part in a June 14 slap-and-tickle with the Pirates. Under baseball rules, a suspension begins immediately if an appeal is dropped. Crawford, 21, didn't know. And oops! Guess it slipped his mind -- and Major League Baseball's -- to let Lou Piniella or anyone in the front office know of his decision. And since his name was on the lineup card a few hours later, Crawford assumed it was OK to play.

But the umpires knew. When they saw him run out to left field, they went to Piniella. Moments later, GM Chuck Lamar joined the meeting. Players in the field went in and sat down. MLB Vice President Sandy Alderson was brought in via cell phone. And a ballpark waited.

It was finally decided that Crawford could play, and would begin his suspension yesterday. Who'd have thought that would be a bad break for the Devil Rays. For in a strange twist to the story (pardon the pun), Crawford left the game in the fifth inning with a bruised heel and was on crutches after the game.

Said Piniella: "I thought I had seen about everything, but I saw something else."

This 'n' that

Warren Morris (.294, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs, 1 error in 28 games) might be proving more than a stopgap at second in Detroit. Manager Alan Trammell says he's being considered long term. ... The Guy has found one thing that Dontrelle Willis isn't more popular than -- cheap processed meat products. A discount tickets and cheap hot dogs promotion brought out 28,170 to Stade Olympique for the Expos' 7-1 win vs. the Marlins July 12. Sunday, with Willis on the mound, 16,084 showed up. ... And finally, Torii Hunter's take why the Twins have fallen so fast and so hard: "We're the hunted -- and when the rabbit has the gun and he's chasing you, it's no fun." Elmer Fudd couldn't have said it better.

Shot and a jeer

Shot: This time it counted? How offensive is that. "When I was a kid playing in the street, I thought it counted then," said Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. "They all count."

Jeer: Knowing what we know of the Barry Zito-Roger Clemens All-Star screwup, The Guy can only assume that Major League Baseball and the Athletics used the CIA to pass along the information.

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