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Best bet to catch Red Sox? It's O's

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Roger Clemens is back in the rotation, Lee Tinsley and Mark Whiten are back in the outfield, and, during the next 10 days, the Boston Red Sox will get designated hitter Jose Canseco and pitcher Aaron Sele off the disabled list.

Everybody's wondering whether the Red Sox, who nearly achieved a double-digit lead in the standings this week, can overcome their tradition of botching a good thing.

Here's a better question: Does anybody in the AL East have the right stuff to catch the Red Sox, once Boston goes through a slump?

Detroit has played better than expected, but this is a fact: They have no chance. They stink.

The Blue Jays may have three or four future Hall of Famers in their lineup. But Paul Molitor, a Major League Baseball Players Association leader who talked wearily of calling it quits if the strike lingered, is having an awful season.

John Olerud isn't producing much, and the pitching staff is a mess; to date, the team's best starter has been Al Leiter, and the Jays really don't have an established closer now that Darren Hall has established the fact that he in no way resembles Duane Ward. Toronto has blown six of 13 save opportunities.

But more devastating to Toronto is the fact that the team is in the process of being sold. In the past the Blue Jays have gone out and acquired the players they needed to compete, even in the middle of the season, like Tom Candiotti, David Cone and Rickey Henderson. That may not be possible this year.

The Yankees still have that great core of talent -- Jack McDowell, John Wetteland and Wade Boggs. But their rotation is a problem as long as Jimmy Key is out. The situation is ripe for panic, and nobody is more capable of panicking than New York owner George Steinbrenner.

A month ago, the Yankees were laughing at the idea of signing Darryl Strawberry. Now, it seems, the New York tabloids seem to have convinced Steinbrenner that signing the Straw Man is somehow going to help the Bronx Bombers.

He may draw a few more fans, but lost in all the hype is the fact that Strawberry has proved in the past two seasons that he really can't play anymore.

The Yankees also have talked to the Houston Astros about acquiring left-hander Greg Swindell, who is talented but has shown that he is sensitive. New York is no place for a sensitive left-hander.

That leaves the Orioles, who may be the only team capable of taking a run at the Red Sox.

The Orioles' starting pitching is beginning to come around, with Ben McDonald joining Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown to give the club three pretty good starters.

The bullpen should stabilize with the addition of Terry Clark and Mark Lee, who throw strikes.

Curtis Goodwin and Manny Alexander have given the lineup speed, and Jeff Manto is the Orioles' answer to Tinsley or Troy O'Leary.

The Orioles could use another marquee starter. They talked to the Twins about Scott Erickson last week, but Erickson may be a right-handed Arthur Rhodes, a guy with tremendous stuff who mostly frustrates his manager and pitching staff.

A more interesting possibility is Doug Drabek of the Astros. Houston owner Drayton McLane has told club executives that if the Astros don't get into the race soon, they should look to deal Drabek. The right-hander is a perfect fit for the Orioles, a veteran who could give them good innings.

The Orioles may need him to have any chance to catch those Red Sox.

"When you get a lead like that, you've got to win," Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said this week. "You can't lose now."

You can lose that kind of lead -- the Red Sox proved that in 1949, 1974 and 1978 -- but somebody has to be prepared to make a run at them.

Only the Orioles.

McDonald should stay put

Now that he has beaten the Orioles in his arbitration case, fair and square, the only chance that Ben McDonald has of returning to the team next year is if he negotiates a multi-year deal for substantially less money than he's making now -- and this is something that he should seriously consider, because his value is greater in Baltimore than anywhere else.

McDonald makes $4.5 million this year, and he's in line to make $5 million or more next season if the Orioles choose to offer him arbitration. Which they won't do.

He's a good pitcher with the potential to be more than that, but he's not a $5 million-a-year pitcher yet.

The Orioles, however, probably would strongly consider signing McDonald to a contract for about $3.5 million to $4 million a year for three years.

It might seem crazy to McDonald to take a pay cut, but he should think about this: How many teams in baseball would be willing to pay him $5 million a year?

The Yankees? Probably not. They'd like to keep McDowell and Wetteland.

The Colorado Rockies? They'll have their choice of some other pitchers, too, so they probably wouldn't have to give McDonald that money. The Red Sox? No way. The Atlanta Braves? They already have pitching.

Who else in baseball spends money in this era of moderate fiscal restraint?

Because he was drafted by the Orioles and because the club respects his work ethic and knows him as a person, he's worth more to Baltimore than anybody else.

Just like Cal Ripken is worth more to the Orioles than anybody else, just like Don Mattingly is worth more to the Yankees than he is to anybody else, just like Kirby Puckett means more to the Minnesota Twins than any other team.

The relationship is worth something extra.

It's just that the Orioles won't pay him $5 million a year.

Bill Swift, who drew interest from the Orioles in the off-season before signing with Colorado, is having a terrible year, and now he has shoulder problems.

It should be recalled that back in February, Orioles manager Phil Regan said that given a choice between free agents Swift and Brown, he would choose Brown because of durability. Good choice.

Mondesi seen as special

The Dodgers think they have a superstar on their hands in right fielder Raul Mondesi.

"The talent is so exceptional that no one can help but notice," said Los Angeles general manager Fred Claire. "You see things from him that you just don't see from other players. Those kinds of players just don't walk onto the field that often."

Replacement receptions

The Red Sox embraced Ron Mahay, a former replacement player, when he was called up back in May. But the San Francisco Giants gave a cold shoulder to Joel Chimelis, a former replacement player called up last week for two days.

The San Francisco players held a team meeting -- without Chimelis, of course -- to discuss his presence, and sent a small delegation of players to the offices of general manager Bob Quinn and owner Peter Magowan and protested the promotion. Chimelis was sent back down.

"Let's just say things are back in order now," said Giants outfielder Mark Carreon. "I never associated with a replacement player, and I wasn't about to. A lot of us made sacrifices for eight months."

Barry Bonds was part of the delegation that met with Magowan. Maybe he should worry more about chasing after fly balls and running even when he hits what he thinks are home runs than who was or who wasn't a replacement player.

Hill smooths out comments

Cardinals right-hander Ken Hill, acquired from the Expos in the spring, was quoted in Montreal newspapers this week saying that he didn't expect to be back in St. Louis next year, that he may be traded to a contender this year, and that he didn't think catcher Tom Pagnozzi knew how to call a good game.

Pagnozzi, naturally, was somewhat put off, and Hill did some backtracking. "All I was saying," Hill said, "was that with the Expos, the catcher and I were always on the same wavelength."

Hill later met with Pagnozzi and manager Joe Torre and asked that the catcher move around more behind the plate.

Erickson's mistakes costly?

Milwaukee center fielder Darryl Hamilton on the Twins' enigmatic Erickson, who is being looked at by the Orioles: "He's one of those mystery guys, where he has good stuff, but if he makes one or two mistakes, it usually costs him a game. Normally a pitcher can make a couple of mistakes, and it won't really hurt him. But he's been like this for the last few years.

"He makes a couple of mistakes, and it's like he can't recover. And he's got good stuff, believe me."

Hurting the Big Hurt

Chicago first baseman Frank Thomas says he's sick of being pitched around.

"This [stuff] is becoming boring," he said after being walked three times by the Blue Jays on Wednesday. "This is getting old. Anyone can go up there and leave the bat on their shoulder four times. How can you stay focused when that happens?

"This is trash. This shouldn't happen in the big leagues. No one player is that dangerous. No one."

Thomas should blame his owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, who refused to re-sign Julio Franco for the big money he earned for hitting cleanup and protecting the Big Hurt in the lineup.

Around the horn

* Since being ripped by Oakland manager Tony La Russa, right fielder Ruben Sierra is playing exceptionally.

* Cincinnati's bullpen went from May 4 to June 7 without blowing a lead or a tie score.

* Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell, the 1994 NL MVP, is beginning to see progress as he works his way out of his terrible slump. "I'm starting to get that feeling like I had in '94," Bagwell said. "I feel when a pitcher makes a mistake, I can take advantage of it."

* Marquis Grissom, who had hoped to sign a multi-year deal worth about $6 million a year, was replaced in the leadoff spot in the Atlanta batting order this week by Boys' Latin's Brian Kowitz, earning $109,000. Because of his awful start, Grissom will be lucky to get a contract for more than two years.

* Among those potential base-stealers thrown out by Marlins catcher Charles Johnson last year: Delino DeShields, Darren Lewis, Lenny Dykstra, Moises Alou, Roberto Kelly and Brian McRae. About the only good thing one can say about Florida this season.

* The loss of third baseman Dean Palmer is a heavy blow to the Texas Rangers. Palmer tore a biceps tendon swinging at a pitch, and is out for the year. "That was awful," said Minnesota manager Tom Kelly. "The guy's an All-Star. They're really going to feel that injury."

* California's Tony Phillips isn't getting much respect. On Thursday, he got into a fight with Boston catcher Mike Macfarlane after Macfarlane basically told him to shut up and get back in the box and hit -- this just a few days after New York manager Buck Showalter had Phillips' bat confiscated for suspicion of corking.

"In hockey," said Angels manager Marcel Lachemann, "when you ask to check for an illegal stick [and it's legal], you get the penalty. There were people who watched that game and who didn't know Tony Phillips from the man on the moon, but now his integrity has been hurt."

On Wednesday, Showalter could be seen sniffing baseballs thrown by Oakland's Steve Ontiveros, checking for a dose of pine tar. And you think there's no pressure managing for Steinbrenner.

* There's no truth to the rumor that Kato Kaelin asked the Orioles if he could sleep in the Camden Yards bullpen while they're out of town this week.

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