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Castilla swings into spotlight with big start

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Colorado Rockies outfielder Vinny Castilla is finding out what it must feel like to be Ken Griffey or Mark McGwire. Castilla used to be able to blend into the background on a star-studded offensive team, but that isn't possible when you're leading the major leagues in home runs.

Castilla's 14 homers in the Rockies' first 34 games have diverted some of the attention away from Griffey and McGwire -- which they probably don't mind a bit -- and forced him to wrestle with a level of public fascination he has never experienced, even though he hit 40 home runs in each of the past two seasons.

He already has been lionized in Sports Illustrated and featured on "This Week in Baseball," but it's not just the media that have been struck with a persistent case of Vinnymania.

"It's everybody, every day," Castilla told reporters recently. "The media, my teammates talk to me about it. They talk about it on TV. The taxicab driver, too. He told me, 'You have 14 home runs, you might break the record.' "

That's a bit premature, but Castilla might be in the perfect environment to make a run at the record. He is playing in homer heaven -- Coors Field -- and Denver isn't exactly a media pressure cooker.

Manager Don Baylor is surprised it has taken this long for Castilla to get some national recognition.

"Everybody thinks this is something new," he said. "The guy hit 40 homers the last two years. People talked about [Andres] Galarraga. They talked about [Larry] Walker. And Vinny's chopped liver because he hit .304, 40 homers and 113 RBIs the last two years?"

Red Sox running down?

The operative question in the American League East is this: Can the Boston Red Sox maintain the torrid pace that has kept them within striking distance of the streaking New York Yankees?

Probably not.

The club just found out that starter Butch Henry, out with a torn knee ligament, will not return this season, and his rookie replacement, Robinson Checo, didn't win in two starts and was optioned back to Triple-A.

If the fifth slot in the rotation were the only pitching question, it might not be a major concern, but the Red Sox cannot be sure how long veteran Bret Saberhagen will continue to be an impact starter and they don't have a lot of other good options right now.

The club has another rookie -- Brian Rose -- in the rotation, so a Triple-A guy probably is not the answer, but the likelihood of acquiring a decent veteran pitcher by trade is small. The other possibilities are long relievers Derek Lowe or John Wasdin, or left-hander Steve Avery, who continues to struggle in the minor leagues.

"We have to go on," manager Jimy Williams said. "Somebody else is just going to have to start. I don't think we need to panic right now."

Why Guillen?

The Atlanta Braves did not appear to be the most likely candidate to sign veteran infielder Ozzie Guillen, who was released by the Orioles last weekend, but concern over the durability of starting shortstop Walt Weiss sent general manager John Schuerholz looking for insurance.

Weiss has been one of the club's most productive hitters, but the earlier loss of veteran Rafael Belliard to a torn quadriceps left the Braves with only unproven Ray Holbert in reserve at the most critical infield position. Holbert was designated for assignment to make room for Guillen.

"He has got experience, and we feel he can still play quality shortstop," Cox said of Guillen. "We have a great shortstop in Weiss, but in case he can't play down the line, we have an experienced shortstop coming in."

Guillen also gets his wish. He signed with the Orioles over the winter because he wanted to play on a winning team. Now, he has traded the struggling Orioles for the team with the best record in the National League.

"Having an experienced guy like this is a valuable asset," Schuerholz said. "Over the course of a long season, it doesn't hurt to have a veteran, capable guy like Ozzie Guillen."

Shopping Belle

The Chicago White Sox are on a one-way trip to nowhere this season, so what's the point of keeping $11 million outfielder Albert Belle? He certainly hasn't done anything to boost attendance.

White Sox general manager Ron Schueler reportedly offered Belle to the New York Mets recently, but found little interest in the big, surly slugger. The Mets were more interested in third baseman Robin Ventura, who apparently is off the trading block.

"I don't want [Belle] for this team," Mets GM Steve Phillips told the Chicago Tribune. "He's a good player for the White Sox, but he wouldn't be a good fit here."

More Toronto trouble

The Toronto Blue Jays have had so much trouble scoring runs, they can ill afford any serious pitching setbacks, but there has been speculation that former Cy Young Award-winner Pat Hentgen is trying to pitch through a sore elbow.

Hentgen is struggling -- he allowed a highly uncharacteristic seven walks over three-plus innings in Monday's loss to the Oakland Athletics -- and has altered his pitch selection, raising fears that he is favoring his elbow.

"That's not the Pat Hentgen I've seen before," said Oakland's opposing starter, Kenny Rogers. "I don't know what's wrong."

If Hentgen is hurting, why wouldn't he let anyone know about it? Because he is working on a string of 162 uninterrupted regular-season starts. He skipped his final start of the spring because of elbow tenderness and has reduced the percentage of curveballs in his repertoire, but manager Tim Johnson is convinced that he's healthy.

"He admitted [to an elbow problem] twice. Why wouldn't he do it now if it was bothering him?" Johnson said. "He's just in one of those funks -- like the offense is."

Camera-shy?

Cleveland Indians fans had to be wondering why shortstop Omar Vizquel did not appear for any televised postgame interviews after delivering a dramatic RBI single in the ninth inning to defeat the Orioles on Tuesday night. He has never been accused of being camera-shy.

It turns out that Vizquel had lost the cap on a tooth eating an apple earlier in the game and refused to go on postgame TV because he didn't want to be seen with a gap in his smile.

"That was the first time I ever won a game like that at home," Vizquel said, "and I don't even get to go on TV."

Masochistic promotion

The Athletics are willing to try anything to get fans into the Oakland Coliseum, even build a promotion around an opposing player. The club offered fans two free tickets to a future game last Saturday if Blue Jays ace Roger Clemens struck out more than 10.

Clemens sent them home unhappy, giving up just one hit over seven innings, but striking out just seven on the way to a 7-0 victory.

Cutting too deep

The business plan that prospective Florida Marlins owner Don Smiley is sending out to potential investors reportedly calls for the club further to slash its payroll by dumping the club's remaining high-priced players.

Apparently, the downsizing would extend as far as catcher Charles Johnson.

The Marlins may have trouble getting rid of the huge, ill-advised contracts they gave to Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla, but they'll have no trouble finding prospective takers for Johnson, one of the best defensive catchers in the game and a bargain at $3.3 million per year.

Don't be surprised if his name starts cropping up in trade speculation involving the Orioles.

Comeback watch

It may have looked like a joke at first, but 40-year-old minor-leaguer Dave Stieb just might make it back. He has given up three runs in 16 innings since moving up to Triple-A Syracuse after winning two starts at Single-A.

"I'm very pleased right now," Stieb said last week. "I don't know how much room there is for it to get better."

Maybe a lot better. There is talk that the former Blue Jays ace will get another chance with the big club if he makes a couple more strong starts.

Comeback kid

The Cincinnati Reds didn't waste any time putting top prospect Sean Casey back in the lineup, though it has been barely a month since a thrown ball fractured his eye socket and forced him to undergo surgery.

Casey, who was acquired from the Indians in the Dave Burba deal, is being touted by Reds GM Jim Bowden as a potential franchise player, and he did nothing to dispel that notion with a 3-for-4 performance in his first major-league start at first base on Tuesday.

"He can hit. I don't think there's any doubt about that," manager Jack McKeon said. "And I think he'll hit for power. Maybe 15 to 18 home runs. He may get them this year."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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