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Tuesday, September 3
 
Oswalt, Miller excelling under the radar screen

By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com

Here's a back-to-school pop quiz, under the heading of The Great Unsung:

1. Which team has the most effective duo of starting pitchers going?
The automatic answer, of course, is Arizona with Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. Hard to go wrong with Boston's Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, either. But what about those rolling Oakland A's, with any combination you'd like from Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Cory Lidle? Or the top half of Anaheim's deep rotation, Jarrod Washburn and Kevin Appier? Maybe Atlanta's Greg Maddux and the resurgent Kevin Millwood?

Roy Oswalt
Roy Oswalt is third in the NL in wins (17) and fifth in ERA (2.91).

No, no, no, no and no.

While it has thus far gotten them only within four games of a playoff spot, the answer is the Houston Astros. Between them, Roy Oswalt and the stealth ace, Wade Miller, are 16-1 with a 2.24 ERA in 20 starts since the All-Star break.

None of the combinations have fewer than four second-half losses, although Zito and Lidle (14-4, 1.79), Martinez and Lowe (12-4, 1.81) and Maddux and Millwood (13-4, 2.19) have slightly lower earned run averages. The great Johnson and Schilling are 14-4 with a combined 2.57 ERA since the break.

While Miller has gone 28-11 in his two full seasons as a big-leaguer, he has generally flown under the radar in Houston. Oswalt is among the biggest reasons for this phenomenon. He's piled up a 31-9 record since reaching the big leagues on May 6, 2001.

"He's got 17 wins in the toughest league in the world,'' Padres right fielder Bubba Trammell said of Oswalt. "That should tell you something. If he keeps the stuff he has right now, he's going to do it year in and year out and have the same kind of year.''

Oswalt, who just turned 25, is trying to become the seventh Houston pitcher to win 20 games. The others: Larry Dierker, J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, Mike Scott, Mike Hampton and Jose Lima.

He can spin a tale, besides. Consider this bit of whimsy he recently laid on Alyson Footer of MLB.com.

"I was pitching in the Midwest League in '99,'' Oswalt began. "I got hurt in spring training that year. I had some type of calcium buildup underneath my shoulder blade, so I missed the first month of the season. After 10 games, my arm was killing me. It was in my shoulder. But I was still throwing well and I didn't want to come out, plus I was hurt in the beginning of the year and so I really didn't want to be hurt twice in one year. So I tried to pitch through it.

"The last game I was pitching against the (Lansing affiliate of the) Cubs. I was pitching against Carlos Zambrano, I remember that. They ended up beating us 1-0. In the fifth inning of that game, my arm was just killing me, to the point where I needed to tell somebody. But I pitched nine innings.

"For two or three weeks I figured it was tendinitis and it would quit hurting. But two or three weeks went by and it was still killing me, to the point where I couldn't sleep at night. About two months went by and I told (my wife) Nicole I'm going to have to go to the doctor. This was the offseason, and it was still hurting. I gave it another week and I was just about to start back lifting weights. I had a truck -- an '85 Ford truck -- and it had a miss in it. So I was in the mode of checking it out. I thought I'd take the sparkplugs out because the wire might be scratched and maybe it was touching a piece of metal and making it miss. The motor wasn't running smoothly. With the older trucks, if you have a sparkplug that's laying against the metal, it might burn and make it miss if it's not hitting on all cylinders.

"So I was messing with the sparkplug wires. I grabbed the one that would have been burnt. Every time the motor turned over, it was shooting electricity through the sparkplugs. It was shooting volts -- I don't know how hard - but it was shooting so hard I couldn't let go of it. Finally I let go of it, fell on the ground, and I got up and instantaneously my arm felt better. It still hurt just a little bit, but it was nothing like it was.

"It hasn't bothered me since. I told a trainer about it and he told me that I might have had a bone spur or something in there and the electricity could have knocked it out of the way. It probably saved my pitching career.''

2. If there was a Pitching Coach of the Year Award, who would get it?
That's easy. How can you overlook the rocking man, Leo Mazzone? His staff leads the majors with a 3.04 ERA, which is six-tenths of a run better than No. 2 Los Angeles.

With Tom Glavine and Maddux working 366 innings already, the Braves had a running start toward a low ERA. But three relievers -- none named John Smoltz -- have ERAs lower than Maddux's 2.49.

Chris Hammond, Mike Remlinger and Darren Holmes are 16-6 with a combined 1.60 ERA over 165 outings. Toss in Kerry Ligtenberg, Kevin Gryboski and Tim Spooneybarger and you've got a 22-10 record and 2.19 ERA over 292 outings.

One word: Wow.

3. Mo Vaughn or Scott Spiezio?
Spiezio, of course. Vaughn leads his Anaheim replacement in only two categories -- home runs and headlines. The Angels wouldn't be positioned for a wild card spot had GM Bill Stoneman not gotten the Mets to take Vaughn off his hands.

The switch-hitting Spiezio, who joins Minnesota's Doug Mientkiewicz among the AL's top fielders at first base, has improved greatly from the right side of the plate this season. He's hitting .288, compared to Vaughn's .253, and has driven in 69 runs, which is seven more than Mo.

Troy Percival says there's no way to know how many runs Spiezio has saved Angels' pitchers. "If he doesn't win the Gold Glove, there's something wrong," said Percival. "I know (John) Olerud does a great job, but Spiezio has saved our bacon so many times on defense that whatever he does on offense is a bonus."

4. Who has become the glue to the St. Louis rotation?
Believe it or not, we'd argue that it is Andy Benes, who has so many creaking joints that you can practically hear him walk. Benes, who almost retired in April because of an arthritic knee, is the only member of the Cardinals' rotation who has taken every turn since the All-Star break.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa hoped he'd get innings from the stubborn Benes. The quality of the innings has been a bonus. He's made nine starts since being activated to help fill the void created by the death of Darryl Kile. In the last seven, he's allowed only 26 hits and seven runs over 42 2/3 innings.

Alan Benes, his younger brother who is attempting a comeback of his own with the Cubs, called with a question after one recent start. "How are you getting them out with what you throw up there?" he asked.

"You know what?'' Andy Benes said. "I'm not sure. I'm taking the attitude that you can either overpower then with your stuff, like some of these young guys. Or you try to keep it under the radar and overpower them with your location. When you're not featuring a 95-mile an hour fastball, it's not too tough to keep your focus out there."

Catcher Mike Matheny is among Benes' admirers.

"He made huge adjustments, which aren't easy to make late in your career,'' Matheny said. "He got away from what he'd done his whole big-league career -- just rearing back and throwing. He's really got an idea and he's using all his pitches now. It's fun to see him having success.''

5. Which Oakland pitcher just missed becoming the first major leaguer since Orel Hershiser in 1988 to make five starts in one month without allowing an earned run?
Sorry, but have you ever taken a test that came without a trick question? While Zito, Mulder and Hudson are the obvious possibilities, the answer is Lidle.

Oakland's No. 4 starter was 5-0 with a 0.20 ERA over six starts in August. He would have had a zero mark for the month had manager Art Howe not opted to skip No. 5 starter Aaron Harang on Saturday against Minnesota, instead giving Lidle his sixth start for the month.

"Look at the numbers,'' Howe said. "They don't lie. He's been the best pitcher in baseball, not just for us."

6. Who is the M.V.B.?
In an upset, give us Aaron over Bret in the race for Most Valuable Boone.

Bret Boone is making up for lost time (.345-10-36 since the All-Star break) but his .229 average in the first half of the season helped set the tone for a Seattle lineup that has been underwhelming. Aaron Boone, meanwhile, has been one of the most consistent Reds.

Aaron Boone is hitting .244, but has already set career highs with 24 homers and 76 RBI. Just as importantly, he's shown versatility in the field. In addition to 119 starts at third, he's had 13 at shortstop, where he's outplayed Barry Larkin.

The Reds have asked Aaron Boone to go to the Florida Instructional League for 10 days to work on the nuances of shortstop. He's a possible successor to Larkin, who will come back in 2003 only because it's the last year on his three-year, $27-million contract.

7. When is David Wells' back going to give out?
Who knows? But it won't happen as soon as we thought it would, anyway.

It's hard for anyone with Wells' self-absorbed personality to be unsung, but in the Yankees' rotation he just might be. He's already gone beyond expectations, giving Joe Torre 27 starts and 175 1/3 innings. He's on track to win 18 games and work 208 innings.

"I don't think a lot of people expected me to last this long,'' Wells said. "But, I knew I could if I stayed healthy. I had a lot to prove.''

No major-league starter has had more runs to work with this year than Wells, who is getting an average of 7.6 runs from Yankee hitters when he starts. The rest of the top 10: Lowe, 7.3; Jason Jennings, 6.9; Mark Buehrle, 6.8; Mike Mussina, 6.7; Ryan Jensen, 6.7; Rick Reed, 6.5; Rodrigo Lopez, 6.4; Zito, 6.4, and John Burkett, 6.4.

Sammy Sosa
Right field
Chicago Cubs
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OPS AVG
126 44 98 108 1.047 .303

Spotlight: Cubs RF Sammy Sosa
Back in the lineup after missing nine games with a strained neck, Sosa had one of five homers that the Cubs delivered off shell-shocked Milwaukee reliever Andrew Lorraine in the second game of Monday's doubleheader at Wrigley Field.

Sosa needs six more to reach 500 and become the only man ever to hit 50 five times. His homer on Monday was his first since Aug. 17. But don't be surprised if he closes the distance on 500 in a sprint. He had 10 homers in a stretch of 10 games from Aug 8-17.

By the way, Lorraine has had two appearances this year, both against the Cubs. He's allowed 16 runs on 17 hits (and six homers) in seven innings.

New face: White Sox outfielder Joe Borchard
Had Borchard not picked baseball over football, he would probably be getting ready for his rookie season as an NFL quarterback. But instead the two-sport star from Stanford is getting his feet on the ground in the big leagues.

Borchard homered off Toronto's Corey Thurman in his second major-league at-bat. It came less than 24 hours after he had learned he was being promoted. "This is too much excitement to really comprehend in such a short period of time,'' he said.

Borchard received a $5.3 million bonus to sign with the Sox because of his potential as a power hitter. He hit .270 with 20 homers and 58 RBI at Triple-A Charlotte, which were considered disappointing stats for him, prior to being called up. He missed most of the first month of the season with a broken foot.

While Borchard played center field almost exclusively over the last two seasons, he was in right field for his debut. White Sox manager Jerry Manuel says he wants to use September to get a better read on rookie Aaron Rowand in center, so Borchard's playing time will probably have to come on the outfield corners. If the Sox like what they see, they'll look to deal left fielder Carlos Lee in the offseason.

Team to watch: Athletics
With Tim Hudson going against Kansas City on Wednesday night, the A's will be favored to extend their winning streak to 20 games. If they can do that, they'll go for 21 on Friday in Minnesota after a day off. The tentative matchup for Friday is Cory Lidle vs. Brad Radke. Then it'll be Mark Mulder and Barry Zito vs. Kyle Lohse and Joe Mays on Saturday and Sunday respectively.

Only one team has ever won more than 21 in a row -- the 1916 New York Giants had a 26-game winning streak that included one tie.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.








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