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Reality sets in after Randy and Pedro

Special to

May 13

It's not that fans don't want to see pitching. The Randy Johnson-Kevin Brown matchup Wednesday night was one of those national events, like a Koufax-Marichal showdown. Friday night in Baltimore the entire sellout Camden Yards crowd was on its feet applauding Pedro Martinez as he blew away Delino DeShields for the final out of his 15-strikeout, two-hit masterpiece.

Pedro Martinez
With his recent years of dominance, Pedro Martinez is becoming a pitcher for the ages.
In fact, about a half-hour after that game, friends called from their cell phones to share the sounds. A chant of "Pe-dro, Pe-dro" cascaded across the Baltimore night as fans planted a Dominican flag on the statue of Babe Ruth that stands at Camden Yards.

Pedro probably is the game's hottest ticket, the most electrifying in-person attraction. He brought the Camden house down. He had Yankee Stadium on its collective feet, chanting for him last September in a one-hit, 17-strikeout masterpiece. He is the definition of One Night and One Night only!

Martinez, Johnson and Brown are machines to be marveled at. Pedro simply just has that Springsteen touch. And if you live in Toronto or Chicago, one reason you are checking your schedule and trying to figure out when Pedro is appearing in your town is that he is not only one of a kind, he is the only one.

On the other hand ...

Joe Strong is pitching today. At 37, Strong -- after stops in Taiwan, Mexico, Korea and several other countries -- made his major league debut on Thursday with the Marlins, who admitted that with Ricky Bones disabled with his incredible locker room Barcolounger back injury, and a bullpen heroically frayed, had only the alternative of moving Mark Kotsay from right field to the bullpen or call up Strong.

Rich Sauveur is pitching these days, at age 36, after being called up by the Oakland A's on Friday. Jim Morris, another 36-year-old, is pitching for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, living a life much like a movie hero these days. Jim Bruske, who sat out the entire 1999 season, is also pitching at the young age of 35.

"I've had 17 calls in three days from clubs looking for middle pitching help," says one National League general manager. "Problem is, I've been on the other line trying to find a couple of relievers myself."

Ask Expos GM Jim Beattie. He has been shopping for relief help for some time now, with closer Ugueth Urbina down, hard-throwing apprentice Scott Strickland sidelined and Graeme Lloyd also out. Now Beattie has turned his search to a 24-hour scan. "It's tougher than you'd ever think," says Beattie.

"What makes the hunt so difficult is because so many of the pitchers in these roles are so inconsistent," says Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker. "One year, they're unhittable. Next year? Hittable."

Jeff Zimmerman is one of those. He was untouchable until last Aug. 1, but since then has struggled because he is overthrowing his slider. Zimmerman's teammate in Texas, Tim Crabtree, was outstanding last year but is also struggling a great deal this season.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have more than $6 million wrapped up in Gregg Olson, Mike Fetters and Alan Mills, each of whom are providing little help to the club. Matt Karchner, on the other hand, got hot for a couple of months two years ago and the Cubs, who needed to get bullpen help in order to stay in the wild-card hunt, gave the White Sox a prime prospect named Jon Garland to get him. Karchner, by the way, is currently pitching at Triple-A Iowa.

And don't forget about the Orioles, who gave Mike Timlin a monster four-year deal prior to the '99 season. Owner Peter Angelos is so disgusted with Timlin at this point that he's willing to pay someone to take him off his hands.

Twins GM Terry Ryan was criticized for allowing his closer, Mike Trombley to go during the offseason, but the Twins have pieced together a five-man bullpen that has done rather well compared to Trombley, who has three blown saves in four save opportunities for the O's. "I get calls all the time about our guys (Hector Carrasco, Eddie Guardado, Bob Wells, etc.)," Ryan says. "But they're guys we can afford in our market. Why would we trade them?"

"I've scoured Triple-A rosters and haven't found much of anything," says another NL GM. Several teams keep calling Colorado about right-hander Rick Croushore, though his pitching line reads as follows: 11 1/3 IP, 15 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 6 BB, 11 SO. The Dodgers brought back Onan Masaoka even though he walked 25 batters and struck out only seven in 20 2/3 innings for Triple-A Albuquerque this year. The Yankees thought Ryan Bradley would be a keeper ... but a 7.90 ERA at Triple-A Columbus leads you to possibly think otherwise.

With nowhere else to turn, several teams are taking a look at former big leaguer-turned-independent league closer Ken Ryan, who is pitching for Nashua, N.H., of the Atlantic League.

Don't fret, however, because there are some very good bullpens out there. The Reds are deep and have a varied number of arms to choose from. The Mets should also have a good bullpen depending on whether they can keep Armando Benitez's up-and-down makeup together at one end and a solid Pat Mahomes at the other.

Looking at it right now, Florida has the best bullpen in the majors with Antonio Alfonseca serving as the closer and an unmatched string of power arms in front of him. The Braves could be close now that John Rocker is back, but will need Kevin McGlinchy and Luis Rivera to step up.

Cleveland wishes it could get solid work out of its pen, but simply hasn't so far. This week, in fact, the Indians blew a seven-run lead to Minnesota by giving up nine runs over the final three innings. Now that's demoralizing. "I believe we have the bullpen we need," says GM John Hart, whose starting staff is the best it has been in a while with the return of Bartolo Colon and the improvement of Jaret Wright.

But is the Indians' bullpen good enough to get them to the World Series? Hart will likely be looking for help come the trading deadline.

Boston has gotten a lot out of Rheal Cormier, Rich Garces and Tim Wakefield working in front of Derek Lowe, but will that trio hold up through the hot months? The Cardinals also have to get help if they are going to go all the way. The Giants also may need some retooling. And if Toronto, Oakland, Seattle, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia all have hopes of reaching the playoffs, they better improve their bullpens.

All this makes one appreciate how extraordinary the Yankees bullpen has been thus far. In a six-week period in which New York's starting pitching and top of the order have been inconsistent, the pen has carried them with a 10-1 record and 2.78 ERA. What's most unusual is that this is the fourth year that Mariano Rivera, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson have worked together. Their combined postseason ERA is 1.10 in 114 2/3 innings. And barring serious injury, once this season is over the three will likely put together four straight seasons in which each will total a minimum of 30 appearances apiece, matched only by the Oakland A's (Dennis Eckersley, Rick Honeycutt, Gene Nelson) of 1988-91 and the Indians trio of Jose Mesa, Paul Assenmacher and Eric Plunk of 1995-98.

While so much focus has been on the possible starters who could become avaliable in July, there may be more relievers on the market that will garner a lot of interest.

The Devil Rays are begging, without response from anyone, for someone to take Roberto Hernandez off their hands. But that won't happen with his salary ($6 million this year). The Tigers, however, could make Todd Jones, who is very much underrated, available while the Brewers could get a young arm or two for Bob Wickman if they choose. In the unlikely event that the Rangers are out of it in July, they could also think about moving John Wetteland, who will be a free agent at the end of the season.

And then there's Alfonseca, who makes $380,000. Right now he is a big-time closer and might have as much value as anyone come July if the Marlins think Braden Looper and Co. can close, and they see a young, impact, everyday star player they could get in return.

For now, teams will have to be happy with pitchers the likes of Strong and Sauveur and scour the available list of bodies -- Brian Bohanon, Rich Rodriguez, Timlin, Mills and Hernandez.

What a day at Wrigley
Since the Cubs and Brewers have become rivals, they have split 28 games, averaging 14.9 runs and 4.0 homers per game. But never had there been anything like Thursday's game, the NL's longest nine-inning game ever at 4 hours and 22 minutes. Some notes from a scout's pad:

  • "There were only 41 first-pitch strikes to 101 batters, and only one pitcher (Not So Sweet Andrew Lorraine) of the 10 used in the game threw a first-pitch strike more than 50 percent of the time."

  • "There were 23 2-0 counts in 101 plate appearances."

  • "There were an amazing 32 three-ball counts (3-0, 3-1, 3-2)."

  • "There were just two 1-2-3 innings, the Cubs' first and the Brewers' ninth."

  • "Seven of the 18 innings featured multiple reaches to open the frame."

  • Glenallen Hill's huge homer off Steve Woodard came off an 88-mph fastball. "I have been going to Wrigley Field since I was a kid (I even saw the 22-0 Pirates' win in 1975)," the scout said, "and never had seen a longer homer in that park."

  • Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker, fellow broadcaster Pat Hughes and White Sox executive Dan Evans now have seen the longest major league game (a 25-inning affair between the Brewers and White Sox in 1984) and the longest National League nine-inning game.

    Around the majors

  • While the Expos shop for pitching to fill Dustin Hermanson's role after he moved to closer to replace Ugie Urbina, there are rumblings that Rondell White may again be traded. Seattle, Cleveland, Florida and several other clubs have tried to get into the White sweepstakes, but if he were to go, the Expos would have to get an outfielder in addition to pitching. Beattie clearly does not want to deal White, because of his production and character, but understands the problems White has had with his knees playing on Montreal's turf. "If he stays healthy," says Beattie, "Rondell will be a better player in his 30s than he was in his 20s." Much like Bernie Williams has been.

  • Scott Erickson's velocity was down 3-to-5 mph in his first two starts. It, in fact, took 60 pitches in his debut before he got a swing and miss. But that's understandable.

  • What isn't understandable is why Sterling Hitchcock is down so far, which is yet another bad break for a Padres team that has had nothing but bad luck. "What's tough for Hitchcock and their control pitchers," says one NL manager, "is that they are a very weak defensive team at every infield position and wherever Eric Owens plays. That makes things tough for the pitchers."

    The Padres had talked to the Braves about Carlos Hernandez, as Los Bravos search for a replacement for Eddie Perez. Joe Oliver is also a possibility.

  • Two clubs called Tigers GM Randy Smith this week about Juan Gonzalez and were told that they are not intrerested in moving him -- yet. Since April 14, Gonzalez had not knocked in a runner in scoring position (his four RBI came on three solo homers and a double with a runner on first) and thus the heat has been on Smith, especially with print reports that there is a buy-out in Smith's contract extension. Wow, when things go wrong they go wrong in Detroit.

  • There is one major reason for Jose Cruz's takeoff. And his name is Cito Gaston. Gaston is a master hitting mind, especially in his approach for hitters to look for pitches in certain situations. With Gaston's help, Cruz has been getting himself into fastball counts, as his father did in the latter stages of his career.

    Former Blue Jays will tell you that in Kelly Gruber's big year in 1989, he looked to Gaston between pitches for a sign of what to look for. When Gruber left Toronto and Gaston, he was lost.

  • Speaking of looking for pitches, Ruben Mateo's crawl up over the .300 mark has come as he has learned to patiently watch for good pitches to hit. Mateo is a certain star in the making.

  • The one problem the Reds had with Deion Sanders was that to bring him up before they thought he was in baseball shape would have necessitated dumping Michael Tucker or Alex Ochoa, and both are too important to the club to do that. In fact, Ochoa is blossoming into the player many thought he would be years ago.

    News and notes
    When the draft is held two weeks from now, one of the most intriguing names will be Princeton's Chris Young. You may recognize his name from his playing a different sport, however. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound sophomore left-hander helped Princeton into the NCAA basketball tournament in 1999, and this year he's pitched Princeton into the baseball regionals after beating Dartmouth to clinch the Ivy League title last weekend.

    "Chris is the best two-sport athlete in college sports today," Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley says. "He's not a guy who throws 98, but he sits on 89-90-91, has remarkable command and because of the angle he creates and his ability to consistently get the ball down, has a better fastball than the gun indicates."

    While Young is a legitimate NBA prospect, he's a baseball junkie and a Nolan Ryan fan from his days growing up in Dallas (he's clearly a Larry Bird junkie, as well). But there's a problem with his draft eligibility in that the Ivy League doesn't allow athletes to be a professional in one sport and compete for the school in another sport, like Yankees third-base prospect/Michigan quarterback Drew Henson.

    By the way, Bradley, who once was Randy Johnson's catcher with the Mariners, hooked Young up with the Big Unit and Johnson has become a mentor of sorts to Young.

  • Steve Trachsel beat the American League's two best pitchers --Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez -- in consecutive 1-0 masterpieces that clearly demonstrated Trachsel's ability to pitch at a high level. Maybe there is something about motivation from intense concentration for Trachsel. Other than his past two starts, two other strong starts this year came against Brad Radke (7 IP, 0 R) and Mike Mussina (6 2/3 IP, 2 R).

    Considering that the other four members of what was supposed to be Tampa Bay's rotation -- Juan Guzman, Wilson Alvarez, Dan Wheeler and Ryan Rupe -- haven't won one game between them, Trachsel is now the staff leader.

  • Speaking of the Devil Rays, they are trying to dump Jose Canseco, who will be a free agent at the end of the year. Canseco has knocked in more than 100 runs just once since 1991. The fact that excitable owner Vince Naimoli usually travels with the team and often goes into the clubhouse after games makes things more -- how does one put this -- interesting.

    The good news is that Jose Guillen is leading the International League in the three triple-crown categories, which might allow the Devil Rays to deal Bubba Trammell for additional pitching. They acquired Mark Guthrie from the Cubs for the useful David Martinez -- and in the process saved $400,000.

  • The Yankees' outstanding first base prospect Nick Johnson has now gone to four hand specialists to try to find out the exact nature of the problem that has kept him out all season. The problem for the Yankees is that they had counted on Johnson making the big club next year, but after this injury-filled season, that seems unlikely unless Johnson has an outstanding season of winter ball.

  • The Yankees also counted on one young pitcher stepping up and making their staff this season, but thus far the ones that were expected to fill that spot -- Ed Yarnall, Jake Westbrook or Ted Lilly -- have all struggled in the minors.

  • Orel Hershiser met with Dodgers officials and indicated he wants to try to work out his problems rather than retire. Opponents are hitting .360 against him.

  • What's essentially wrong with the Dodgers was on display in Arizona this past week. Gary Sheffield casually caught two fly balls that accounted for runs each time, one coming with a one-run lead in the 12th inning of Tuesday's 11-7 loss. They also went into Arizona without a lefty in their bullpen against the D-Backs' strong left-handed hitting lineup. And in the three games prior to the Randy Johnson-Kevin Brown matchup on Wednesday, the Dodgers allowed 40 runs in three games, the most runs they've allowed in a three-game span since 1962.

  • The Rangers' plan this offseason was to get more left-handed for the A's, Yankees and Angels. Whoops. Lefties are hitting .358 against Kenny Rogers, .310 against Darren Oliver, .308 against Doug Davis and Justin Thompson is down for the year. The Rangers, by the way, are 2-6 against those three teams.

  • The D-Backs think Matt Mantei will be back soon and Buck Showalter knows they can't survive without him. But Byung-Hyun Kim is on pace to challenge Billy Wagner's strikeouts-per-nine innings record, with 28 punchouts in his first 16 2/3 innings.

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