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'Big Cat' makes big difference in Braves

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Atlanta Braves may have raised some eyebrows last winter by giving veteran first baseman Andres Galarraga a three-year contract worth more than $8 million a year, but he has quickly proved that his big numbers the past few seasons did not come out of thin air.

Galarraga has picked up right where he left off last year at hitter- friendly Coors Field. He was tied for second in the major leagues with 15 home runs heading into yesterday, and has put a charge into a Braves lineup that lacked the offensive punch to get to the World Series in 1997.

The Braves, like the New York Yankees in the American League, are off to an amazing start, and they made headlines with a record-tying run of 25 games with at least one home run, a streak that ended Thursday. They don't even need a rearview mirror in the National League East because nobody is going to make a serious run at them this year.

The second-place New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies were 9 1/2 games back entering yesterday. The Braves figured to have a smooth ride to the playoffs, but no one could have imagined that they would make it look this easy.

Galarraga has made all the difference. The Big Cat hit 10 of the 45 home runs that the Braves piled up during the 25-game streak. He also ranks high among the league leaders in RBIs (37) and runs scored (35). Not bad for a guy who's going to be 37 next month.

The Braves also have gotten big contributions from Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and free-agent acquisition Walt Weiss, finally fielding an offensive lineup that really complements their outstanding starting rotation.

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Denny Neagle, John Smoltz, Kevin Millwood and consistent offensive support?

What a scary thought.

Over the rainbow

Florida Marlins pitcher Alex Fernandez isn't yet close to coming back from rotator cuff surgery, but trade speculation already has begun to surface -- and the Orioles are one of the teams likely to be mentioned in connection with him.

The Marlins have given indications that Fernandez will be one of the high-priced players traded to whittle the club's payroll down to about $15 million, and Fernandez has a clause that allows him to designate seven teams he would agree to join. He told reporters recently that those seven teams are the Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox.

"But I still want to be a Florida Marlin," said Fernandez, who still is guaranteed about $26 million for the rest of the five-year, $35 million contract he signed before the 1997 season. "This is my home, and this is where I want to be."

Of course, no one is going to pick up that contract until he proves he's healthy again, which might not happen before next spring.

Something to shoot for

The Marlins entered yesterday's game needing to play .500 ball (60-60) the rest of the way just to tie the 1991 Cincinnati Reds for the worst record recorded by a defending world champion (74-88).

Note to owner Wayne Huizenga: That record is in the bag.

Harnisch is back

Former Orioles pitcher Pete Harnisch went through a personal hell last year, when his battle with chronic depression nearly ended his baseball career. Now, he appears to be making a successful comeback with the Reds.

Harnisch struck out 12 in a start against the Pittsburgh Pirates last weekend and raised his record to 3-0 with a 3.03 ERA with a strong seven-inning effort Friday night against the Chicago Cubs.

The win total may not seem impressive, but he has pitched well in five of his past six starts and could have five victories if the Reds' bullpen had not blown three save opportunities behind him.

Shooting pool

Cubs first baseman Mark Grace became the first player to hit a ball into the swimming pool beyond right-center field at Bank One Ballpark in Arizona on Tuesday.

"I've hit many balls into the drink in my time," Grace said. "It's usually with 7-irons and 5-irons. I guess they can call me 'Tin Cup.' "

Wells swells

Left-hander David Wells pitched well against the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night, quieting a rare clubhouse controversy in that otherwise euphoric wonderland known as Yankee Stadium.

Wells and Joe Torre didn't speak for two days last week after the Yankees manager intimated that Wells' weight (estimated at 250 pounds) might have been a factor when he wilted with a nine-run lead in the 92-degree temperature at The Ballpark in Arlington in his previous start.

The two finally cleared the air last weekend, and Wells looked sharp against the Royals. And, of course, the Yankees continue to cut a wide swath through the American League, wide enough for Wells and Hideki Irabu to walk through hand-in-hand.

Wood's next target: 47

Cubs phenom Kerry Wood will make his next start today against the Reds at Cinergy Field, needing 14 strikeouts to tie the major-league record for total strikeouts over three consecutive starts.

Wood has a record 33 in his past two starts -- including his historic 20 against the Houston Astros. Nolan Ryan holds the major-league mark for three starts at 47, but the all-time mark is 48, accomplished by Boston's Fred Shaw in the Union Association in 1884.

Gooden, but not great

Injured Indians starter Dwight Gooden has pitched so unimpressively during his injury rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Buffalo that general manager John Hart isn't sure there will be a job for him in the major-league rotation when he comes off the disabled list.

Hart met with Gooden after a pair of mediocre minor-league starts and told him to "turn it up a notch." Gooden responded with a decent performance in his third rehab appearance, but Indians officials have to be second-guessing themselves for handing him a two-year, $5.67 million contract.

"When Doc comes back, he has to carve out a spot for himself in the rotation," Hart said recently. "Right now, I'm happy with the starters. They've all been solid. Doc might have to pitch in long relief when he gets back."

New deal

The Orioles weren't the only team to sign a cornerstone starting pitcher to a long-term extension last week. The Indians gave veteran Charles Nagy a four-year deal worth $24 million.

If that proves anything, it's that Hart hasn't gotten gun-shy after a series of abortive pitching acquisitions that includes Ben McDonald, John Smiley, Jack McDowell and -- if all doesn't go well -- Gooden. He had never before guaranteed four years to a pitcher.

"I agonized over the fourth year," Hart said. "But we know Charlie. He's durable, he's in great shape and he's going to win a lot of games for us."

Surprising stopper

Phillies pitcher Mark Leiter was the losingest pitcher in baseball last year, with a 10-17 record as a starter. Now, he's masquerading as a closer in the absence of injured Ricky Bottalico and doing a good imitation.

Leiter entered yesterday 2-0 with a 1.73 ERA in 26 innings and had converted all seven of his save opportunities since moving into the closer role.

Not that it will make manager Terry Francona's job tougher when Bottalico returns from the DL later this month. He'll go right back into the full-time closer role.

"There will be no quarterback controversy," Francona said.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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