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Castoffs rekindling Red Sox's fire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Boston Red Sox always had been cut out of the same mold. Slugging, slow teams that inevitably collapsed because of bad pitching or defense. If they didn't crush you, they didn't win, and they've always had that Goliath arrogance that hasn't been justified in October since 1918.

Which makes this year's team so different. The junkyard dog Red Sox, a collection of players overlooked or dumped by other clubs, are running away with the AL East.

There's Tim Wakefield, released (justifiably) by the Pittsburgh Pirates because he couldn't find his knuckleball magic after the 1992 NL playoffs. Wakefield's back, having won two starts in four days earlier this week. How about third baseman Tim Naehring, who has returned from back surgery and is now one of the league's best clutch hitters, ranking third in the AL in batting? Zane Smith, who wasn't re-signed by the Pirates, has been key. Rule V draftee Vaughn Eshelman, left unprotected by the Orioles, won his first three major-league starts.

They've won despite injuries to Roger Clemens, Aaron Sele, Mark Whiten, Jose Canseco and Lee Tinsley. They've won even as Naehring and shortstop John Valentin have played with nagging injuries. They've won without a true closer.

They've won with a relatively light payroll of $32 million; general manager Dan Duquette decided to keep a core of stars (Clemens, first baseman Mo Vaughn and Canseco) and added a bunch of struggling free-agent pitchers who had success in the past and hoped that some would pan out. They have -- Wakefield, Rheal Cormier, Smith, Erik Hanson and Eshelman have a combined record of 18-5. The Red Sox are paying those five a total of $3.1 million, which is less than they would've paid for keeping Danny Darwin. They were the second team to call up a replacement player, outfielder Ron Mahay. The Red Sox picked up another castoff this week, outfielder Willie McGee.

"This is a hungry team," said bench coach Tim Johnson. "We have no jerks. We have good guys who want to work hard and succeed. We all believe we can win, and everybody seems to take the right, even-keeled attitude."

Vaughn said: "This team doesn't care about who we're playing or who we're facing. It's a great thing to see. I've been around teams that had attitude problems like that. It's not that we feel invincible, but we take every situation and we find a way to turn it into a plus for us."

Could be the kind of Red Sox team that breaks The Curse.

Good call

Eshelman is having shoulder problems and the Red Sox are worried they are serious. Orioles general manager Roland Hemond and his subordinates have been criticized for not protecting Eshelman (and he's been criticized here).

But when the Orioles decided not to protect Eshelman last fall, part of their thinking was that other teams would pass on the lefty because of his bad medical history, and there was always the risk he would break down again.

Correct thinking, as it turned out.

Poor planning

Speaking of Orioles decisions, however, there was the curious handling of Jeffrey Hammonds' promotion.

The right fielder was playing for Double-A Bowie, and on the morning of May 25, the decision had been made to send him to the big leagues on May 28. That, in itself, is odd, because it wasn't as if Hammonds was a true minor-leaguer; if the Orioles deemed him ready to go back to the majors, he should've been there immediately.

Later that day, the Orioles suffered a horrible loss against Oakland when their pitchers walked 14, and later that night, Hemond and Co. decided to promote Hammonds immediately. But that night, Hammonds played in a rain-delayed game for Bowie that lasted past midnight. It wasn't until late the next morning that he was en route to Seattle, and he had a Murphy's Law day.

Bad weather in Detroit delayed his travel, and he wasn't able to make it to the Kingdome until the third inning of the May 26 game, when the Orioles faced left-hander Randy Johnson. Because Hammonds' arrival was delayed, Rafael Palmeiro had to start in his place, and Palmeiro, 1-for-17 lifetime against Johnson, struck out three times against him.

It's ridiculous the Orioles didn't have enough foresight to get Hammonds in Seattle well in advance to face Johnson.

A rare rip by La Russa

Oakland Athletics manager Tony La Russa has always believed in keeping internal problems internal. But this week, right fielder Ruben Sierra sent him over the edge with comments published in a San Francisco Chronicle story.

Sierra was quoted as saying that general manager Sandy Alderson should "put on a uniform and go to home plate. And I want to be the pitcher, so the first pitch I'm going to throw is going to be over his head."

Later on the day of publication, La Russa called reporters together to slam Sierra.

"Every time he opens his mouth he makes a fool of himself," La Russa said. "You try to protect guys, shade the truth a bit. But there's a term players use -- V.I. -- when a player starts believing fantasy. Ruben's a village idiot. . . . In this case, I'm going to say how full of it he really is. He gets on Sandy because he never played. Here's a guy [Alderson] who went to Vietnam. . . . He's trying to intimidate a guy who did two or three [Marine Corps] tours in Vietnam?"

La Russa has twice benched Sierra in an effort to get him to be more selective at the plate.

"I've given Ruben a lot of slack," La Russa said. "He's not a bad guy. [He's just] fallen into that trap -- stats, stats, stats. Sandy has put together winning clubs. And here you've got a guy who hasn't won his first ring. There's so much arrogance. You've got to be nuts. You've got to be an idiot."

La Russa continues to write Sierra's name on the lineup card, but they're not talking. The silence could be deafening for years to come: Sierra's five-year, $28 million contract runs through 1997.

Those lame Yankees

The Yankees are extremely concerned about whether injured pitchers Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki will be healthy enough to be factors in 1995. The Yankees went 1-8 on their recently concluded West Coast trip, just a little worse than the 10-1 they posted on their final Pacific swing in 1994. New York has used the disabled list six times already; they didn't have their sixth disabled player last year until the 79th game.

The Yankees' lousy start has allowed the team to promote minor-league shortstop Derek Jeter, who is going to be a star along the lines of Barry Larkin. Jeter, 20, is the first Yankees first-round pick to play for the team since Rex Hudler (drafted in '78, debut in 1984).

Have bat, no position

Toronto has returned Carlos Delgado to the minors, and they must figure out a position for him. Delgado, an exceptional hitter, came up as a subpar catcher, tried the outfield and has been sidelined with shoulder trouble. Now the Blue Jays may try him at first base.

"We want him to use his bat," said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. "[Where he plays] depends on the makeup of the team. It could be at first, designated hitter or the outfield. It depends on who signs [for '96], who you have and who you don't. John Olerud and Joe Carter are signed, but Devon White's not signed. [Paul] Molitor's not signed, although we've got an option. Carlos will play wherever you can use him. We'll certainly hope and try to give him a chance to play."

Around the horn

* Dodgers right-hander Ramon Martinez wants Carlos Hernandez to catch him, rather than Tom Prince, while Mike Piazza is out. Here's why: Martinez is 2-1 with a 1.67 ERA with Hernandez catching. He's 0-2 with a 13.60 ERA pitching to Prince. (And 2-0, 1.92 pitching to Piazza).

* Giants manager Dusty Baker wants left-hander Terry Mulholland, off to a terrible start, to acknowledge the fact that he can't throw hard anymore and start changing speeds more.

* The Padres moved first baseman Eddie Williams out of the cleanup spot. "I think Eddie's trying too hard," said manager Bruce Bochy. Williams agreed: "I was squeezing the bat so hard, sawdust was falling to the ground."

* Mark Grace on the Cubs' surreal start: "I think early in the year, teams might have said, 'Ah, the Cubs, we can throw our gloves out there and beat them.' But we played real well in spring training and came together. Then, when Jim Bullinger threw as well as he did Opening Day [against the Reds], it was a challenge to the rest of the staff. Now they have a friendly competition going of who can out-pitch who."

Cubs manager Jim Riggleman has been invited by Expos manager Felipe Alou to be a coach at the All-Star Game.

* The Pirates are 1-8 against left-handed starters; they were 15-12 last year.

* Mike Mussina wasn't the only pitcher speaking out last week. Dodgers reliever Todd Worrell questioned the commitment of some of his teammates.

"We look like we don't really want to win at times," Worrell said. "If you're struggling, you've got to make some adjustments, and we've got some guys who aren't doing that."

* It showed some guts on Mussina's part to say something about the Orioles' catatonic play the first month of the season. Mussina isn't at the top of the team hierarchy, like shortstop Cal Ripken or first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, but he is the club's best pitcher. No one can question Mussina's competitiveness -- to pitch with such intelligence means that he's constantly thinking of ways to beat hitters -- and with Mussina's long-term deal seemingly imminent, he should be one of the leaders. He could be around here for quite a while, long after Ripken and Palmeiro are gone.

* The Florida Marlins are a disaster, and right fielder Gary Sheffield is unhappy. In the last week, he questioned whether the Marlins should let their pitchers call their own pitches, then wondered aloud whether it would be better for him to move on.

"I've got to do what's right for Gary, say what's right for Gary," Sheffield said. "It's time to think about myself. I've always put the team first all my career, but right now the sacrifice I'm paying is too big of a price."

The Marlins probably feel the same way, in retrospect, about the $22.5 million they're paying Sheffield. He can be a great player, but it makes no sense to fork out a contract like that unless you have a supporting cast, and they don't.

* David Justice's shoulder surgery really hurts Atlanta's chances to catch the Phillies. It could be the Braves don't even get a wild-card spot -- unbelievable, considering the depth of their starting pitching.

* If the Yankees keep struggling, owner George Steinbrenner just may start believing the tabloids and decide that what the Bombers need is Darryl Strawberry. That would be the best thing that could happen to the Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays.

* Duane Ward is back from Triple-A Syracuse, where he went 1-1 with a 15.00 ERA. "He has improved each time out," said Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash. "The results are immaterial. We're looking more for velocity and location. He says he feels closer." Translated: "If he makes it back, we'll all be shocked."

* Rockies right fielder Larry Walker ended an 0-for-24 slump with a two-run double Wednesday. On Monday, Walker had gone 0-for-6 in an 11-inning game against St. Louis, in the middle of what he calls the worst slump of his career. "When I went to right field in the 11th the fans were chanting '0-for-6' and I'm thinking, 'They don't know the half of it.' "

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