|Monday, August 5
Updated: August 6, 1:36 PM ET
Who to watch down the stretch
By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com
Don't expect the Twins to mail it in.
Sure, they've got a 17-game lead in the AL Central. But they're thinking about the big picture as well, and in that regard, they entered this week tied with Seattle and one game behind the New York Yankees.
"Homefield advantage would be huge," Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "It makes a big difference to a player, to have a big crowd behind you ... If we get the homefield advantage, there's no question we can play with anybody."
No franchise knows that better than Minnesota. The Twins won the World Series in 1987 and '91 without ever winning a game on the road. In those two playoff runs, they were 11-1 at the Metrodome and 5-7 away from home.
With this being a year in which the American League team will host Games 1-2 and 6-7 in the World Series, the AL team with the best record in the regular season could wind up playing 11 of 19 playoff games at home. That would be a small advantage for most teams but a huge one for the Twins, who are 40-19 at home.
With a strike possibly shortening the season, every win is large. Because his bullpen has been so good all season, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire feels very good in that regard. He's seen very few leads go to waste.
But the one guy from the bullpen who most bears watching the next two months is LaTroy Hawkins, the failed closer who is quietly resurrecting his career as one of the majors' best set-up men. Hawkins' fastball is back up in the high-90s, and he's hitting A.J. Pierzynski's mitt with it.
Hawkins' unraveling contributed heavily to a 30-45 second half for the Twins last year. The 6-5 righthander opened the season as a mop-up man and spent the first half in the shadow of Romero and Jackson, the veteran free agent whose experience was a key.
But with Jackson on the disabled list with what has been diagnosed as rotator cuff tendinitis, Hawkins has taken charge of the set-up corps. He has been scored on only once in his last 17 outings, lowering his ERA to 1.49. He's holding opponents to a .192 batting average and has a strikeout-walk ratio of almost five to one.
In other words, he's the goods.
Gardenhire has used Hawkins judiciously, rarely pitching him in back-to-back games, but he's still on pace to work more than 96 innings, which would be his highest total in three years in the bullpen. How he holds up will determine how well the Twins' bullpen holds up -- and how well the bullpen holds up could determine if the Yankees have to survive a win-or-go-home game in the Metrodome in order to keep their annual appointment in the World Series.
Here are our other players to watch down the stretch:
That's an unlikely premise, especially since so many talented hitters share the load in the St. Louis lineup, but it must be noted that Rolen is 4-for-23 since joining the Cardinals. He'll take an 0-for-15 slump into Tuesday night's game at Busch Stadium, which will be his first home game since the trade.
St. Louis fans, the most unconditionally supportive in the majors, aren't likely to hold a slow start against him. "I'm excited to be part of this," Rolen said. "I'm excited about being in a positive situation. Everyone believes this is a positive situation." Rolen figures to get himself together to help the Cardinals win a division title. But in the week since acquiring him, they have seen their lead in the NL Central shrink from five games to two over Cincinnati. Perhaps even more ominously, Houston has gone from six out to only three.
If Griffey can stay healthy for two months, he might provide exactly that.
There are signs of life in Griffey's bat, which is exciting for a team that has hung close without getting anything from its cornerstone player. After hitting .243 with four homers in 74 at-bats before the All-Star break, Griffey is hitting .343 in his last 35 at-bats. His OPS has jumped from an Ed Armbrister-esque .723 before the break to .998 since then.
Griffey still hasn't regained his old power, but that could be the next thing to return now that he's got decent wheels and good timing. It's safe to say fans aren't pining for Juan Encarnacion.
Saarloos, a 22-year-old righthander, has pitched the Astros into serious contention by winning his last four starts. In this stretch, he has struck out 18 while walking one.
"As soon as you get a little success, it breeds a little more success," he said.
In his fifth major league start, the strike-throwing Saarloos shut out Pittsburgh on six hits in 2 hours, 15 minutes. Closer Billy Wagner says Saarloos was in such control that relievers hardly paid any attention to the game.
"We just talked about the most unbelievable stuff out there," Wagner said. "We talked about SAT scores and all kinds of other stuff that I can't tell you about. But the thing that shocked me the most was that the bullpen phone never rang. Sit down there most nights, and the phone rings off the hook. The kid did a great job."
Martinez extended his winning streak to eight games on Sunday in Texas. He hasn't allowed a run in 23 innings over his last three starts and has held the opposition scoreless in six of his last nine starts. He's gone from April question mark into serious Cy Young candidate.
While the Red Sox once flourished without Martinez on top of his game, the natural order has returned in Boston. Since June 19, the Sox are 8-1 with Pedro on the mound and 13-21 behind everyone else.
Despite a stretch of five games without a save, his longest such period since late May, Smoltz projects to finish the season with 57 saves. He's ahead of Thigpen's pace from 1990, when he earned his 39th in his 116th game.
The Dodgers' Eric Gagne was also positioned to give the Thigpen record of 57 saves a run but hasn't had enough opportunities since the All-Star break. With Los Angeles going 8-13, Gagne has increased his total only from 32 to 36.
Martinez denied a recent round of retirement rumors, saying he wants to return again next season. But Seattle's 39-year-old DH might have to rework his contract to stay in the Mariners' plans. The club holds a $10 million option, with a $1 million buyout, which is a risky proposition given the risk of injury.
Martinez missed two months after having surgery to repair a torn hamstring, but has been his old self since the All-Star break, hitting .351 with four homers and 15 RBI. Seattle needs a strong finish from him as the rise of Anaheim and Oakland -- which have combined to hold him to a .269 average -- makes a third consecutive trip to the playoffs no sure thing.
Martinez gets sentimental Hall of Fame mention in Seattle but he's not getting in unless: A) They add a designated hitter wing for him and Harold Baines, or B) He finds a way to play until he's 45. After all, for all his great hitting he's still 70 hits shy of 2000.
Beltre was a shell of himself in May and June. But he hit .300 with six homers in July, fueling hope that he was finally close to realizing his potential. With a strong finish, he could give both his team and his career a boost.
It's been a hard-luck season for Hudson. His ERA (3.59) is actually a tick better than his career mark entering the year (3.61) but his winning percentage has fallen from .742 (49-17) to .471 (8-9). If he's Art Howe's biggest concern, the A's should be all right.
"Not only do we want him, we need him," Giants manager Dusty Baker said of his new center fielder. "I think he's still got some valuable miles left."
After a terrific April, Lofton faded badly for the White Sox. But he homered in his first at-bat after being traded to San Francisco and has been hitting the ball with authority since then, getting two doubles and a triple in his first five National League games.
Lofton isn't the force he once was on the bases. He has 22 steals this year but has only two since June 1, partially because of leg problems. But he will still score a lot of runs if he can get on base in front of Rich Aurilia, Bonds and Jeff Kent.
You've got to admire Lofton's competitiveness. He could have killed the trade to San Francisco because of a clause in his contract with the White Sox, but instead jumped at the chance to join the Giants.
"I understand money is fun to have and it's good when you have the opportunity to get it," Lofton said. "Sometimes you have to put that aside and go with what you really feel. In my heart I've said I want to get to the playoffs. I've been to the World Series and I know what it's like. I know how fun it is to be in one. I just want the opportunity to get there again. If it means less money, I want to do it."
New face: Twins RF Michael Cuddyer
That's the noise that the 23-year-old made last Thursday, when he hit a grand slam off the White Sox's Dan Wright. He's platooned in right field for the last month, hitting a productive .214. He's driven in 10 runs in 42 at-bats.
Cuddyer, originally drafted as a shortstop, is a former first-round draft pick coming off a 30-homer season in Double-A. Along with Dustan Mohr and Bobby Kielty, they give the Twins a stable of young outfielders behind Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones.
Many believe Jones could be an economic casualty after this season. He's having a terrific year in the leadoff spot -- he should have been an All-Star, actually - but will be one of the Twins' five arbitration-eligibles after this season. It's hard to see GM Terry Ryan having the bankroll to accommodate Hunter, Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz, David Ortiz and Johan Santana.
Team to watch: Houston Astros
Houston was 10 games under .500 and nine games behind St. Louis on June 26. It had gone 12-22 in its most recent games, averaging only 3.9 runs per game in that stretch.
But look at Jimy Williams' boys now. They've won 24 of their last 34 to close within three games of the Cardinals and 4 1-2 of Los Angeles in the wild-card race.
"The fact that we are in any kind of race is what's important," first baseman Jeff Bagwell. "A month ago, everybody was getting their hunting magazines and thinking about what trip they were going to go on [in October]."
Houston pitchers have held the opposition to three runs or fewer in 16 of 24 games since the All-Star break. This includes a four-game series in Pittsburgh in which the Astros gave up only three runs, getting three shutouts. They hadn't had three shutouts in a series since 1974.
Houston has 14 games remaining against St. Louis and Cincinnati, with home-and-away series against the Reds this month and the Cardinals in September. It has got Florida and Atlanta this week at home, with two good tests right off the start. Josh Beckett, only three years removed from the Houston schoolboy scene, and A.J. Burnett start for the Marlins Tuesday and Wednesday. The Astros are expected to miss Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, however.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.