Red Sox, Cubs -- and O's -- show value of staff aces

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Don't underestimate the impact that one pitcher can have on the fortunes of a baseball team -- for better or worse.

The Boston Red Sox acquired pitching ace Pedro Martinez and are a different team from the one that struggled out of the gate a year ago. The Chicago Cubs were losing altitude in the National League Central when rookie Kerry Wood burst into the spotlight three weeks ago, but are 10-5 since his amazing 20-strikeout game.

The presence of a dominant pitcher, or the absence of one, clearly can make the difference between a contender and a pretender. That's why the line drive that felled Mike Mussina was such a devastating blow to the Orioles' chances of pulling out of a lengthy slump.

Mussina went on the disabled list for the second time and the Orioles went into the tank. Maybe that was a coincidence, but it probably was not. The club was 5-10 while Mussina was on the disabled list the first time. The Orioles were 0-8 going into the weekend since he was leveled by the shot off the bat of Sandy Alomar on May 14.

Of course, there are a lot of other factors at work. The bullpen is in crisis and the team still lacks offensive chemistry. But a hot pitching ace takes pressure off the bullpen, provides leadership in the rotation and requires less help from the offensive lineup, which takes pressure off everyone.

Just ask Cubs veteran Kevin Tapani, who is not afraid to link the Cubs' recent resurgence to the stunning performance of Wood.

"Nobody until Kerry got here was dominant," Tapani said recently, "but now everybody goes out there thinking we have a chance."

The Orioles showed signs of life when Mussina returned from his first stay on the disabled list, largely because he was unhittable in his first two starts after having an inflamed wart removed from the index finger of his pitching hand. Don't be surprised if the club starts to settle down after he returns.

Trouble is, it might be too late by then.

No Cubs shake-up imminent

There has been speculation in Chicago that the Cubs will bring in Florida Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland if the club does not make a serious run at the National League Central title, but Cubs president Andy MacPhail vehemently denied that he is considering any kind of management shake-up and expressed confidence in current GM Lynch and manager Jim Riggleman.

"We've won a lot of games this year that slipped away from us in the past," MacPhail told reporters. "We've done it with moves Jim made and the players Ed brought in.

"I put an emphasis on franchise stability. Change affects your organization from the regional scouts to the rookie club. It is not consistent with our organizational philosophy, our organizational approach."

Leadership gap?

New Cleveland Indians third baseman Travis Fryman miffed some of his teammates last weekend when he questioned the club's leadership after the Indians suffered through a six-game losing streak.

"Last year, there were some good veterans here such as Orel Hershiser, Matt Williams, Kevin Seitzer and Tony Fernandez," Fryman said. "Now that they're gone, it's time for the other players to become leaders. But they've never had to do that here, and they're not sure how to go about it.

"We're a very good team, but not a great team. We could be a great team, but we need some maturity and that comes from addressing these things. I want to play on a great team."

Those comments did not sit well with some of his teammates, including veterans David Justice, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton.

"I think he didn't know what he was saying," Vizquel said. "He hasn't been here long enough to say there's been no leadership in this clubhouse. We're all leaders. We're veterans. We don't need somebody telling us what to do all the time."

Just goes to show that everything is relative. The Orioles would love to be so rudderless right now.

Good old days remembered

Get this. Mike Piazza already is waxing nostalgic about the old Dodgers ownership, which recently gave way to Fox Sports, who sent Piazza packing to the Florida Marlins.

"I think it really is unfortunate to see the way the Dodgers have lost that separation from other organizations," said Piazza, whose stay with the Marlins lasted seven days before he was traded to the New York Mets on Friday. "Peter O'Malley and that old regime set themselves apart on a lot of issues. Now, obviously, it's a bottom-line business, and they're seeing only the paper part of it, not the fans' point of view, and that's what disappoints me. In the O'Malley era, you wouldn't see a player in a huge mural on the side of the stadium one day and the next day he gets traded."

That may be true, but one of the reasons O'Malley wanted out of baseball was because players and their agents had begun to view the game as a "bottom-line business," and Piazza might be the most blatant example of that in the history of the sport.

Back in familiar role

Former Orioles pitcher Gregg Olson appears to have won at least a share of the closer role in Arizona, where everyday closer Felix Rodriguez has not established himself as the go-to guy in the Diamondbacks' bullpen.

Rodriguez blew two save chances and walked home the winning run in another game earlier this month, prompting manager Buck Showalter to give Olson a chance to show why he was one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball during his glory years in Baltimore.

Olson has responded with back-to-back saves and has not allowed any of six inherited runners to score, but Showalter is billing the switch as a chance to find the right role for Rodriguez.

"The biggest thing we need is for Felix to pitch," Showalter said. "Whenever it happens. We want to try and help his development any way we can. If we feel that is pitching in different situations than closing situations, we will do it."

Staying in line

Red Sox manager Jimy Williams could have rearranged his starting rotation to pit Martinez, his ace, against right-hander David Cone in today's series finale against the Yankees, but chose continuity over the potential competitive edge.

"You have to protect your starters," Williams said. "We're looking at it from the big picture."

It seemed like an obvious call. Williams could have flip-flopped Martinez and veteran Bret Saberhagen during the series against the White Sox last week, giving Saberhagen an extra day's rest and giving the Red Sox a chance to bring out their best against the first-place Yankees.

Williams, however, may have looked at it from a more long-range perspective. Martinez will get the same number of starts over the course of the season, so a victory over the Yankees isn't really worth any more -- at this point -- than a victory over anyone else. Perhaps better to save Martinez for a possible showdown series later in the season, or -- better still -- spring him on the Yankees during the playoffs, if it comes to that. The less they see him before that, the tougher he will be.

No gray area

How about this for a statistical oddity: Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine was 0-8 at the Astrodome before he got his first victory there in 1992. Since then, he's 7-0 with an 0.91 ERA.

No minor feat

The Triple-A Indianapolis Indians pulled off an amazing feat Wednesday against Pawtucket. They homered for the cycle in one inning.

Pete Rose Jr. hit a bases-empty home run, Guillermo Garcia hit a two-run shot, Jason Williams hit a three-run home run and former Red Sox outfielder Glenn Murray hit a grand slam in a 10-run fifth inning.

Quote of the week

From a fan at Pro Player Stadium to Piazza as he stood at the plate on Wednesday night: "C'mon, Mike, you're playing for the world champions now."

Nine days of news

Friday's trade of Mike Piazza to the Mets capped a busy nine days for baseball:

May 14: A line drive by the Indians' Sandy Alomar smashes into Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina's face, breaking his nose and leaving a gash over his eye.

May 15: The Dodgers trade Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich and Manuel Barrios in a monster deal that includes $98 million in contracts.

Last Sunday: The Yankees' David Wells pitches the 13th perfect game in modern history.

Last Sunday: Kerry Wood, 20, strikes out eight Reds, pushing his three-game total to 41.

Monday: The Athletics' Mike Blowers becomes the 218th player in history to hit for the cycle -- a single, double, triple and home run in the same game.

Tuesday: The Blue Jays' Woody Williams loses a no-hit bid in the eighth when the Devil Rays' Kevin Stocker singles.

Tuesday: The Orioles' Armando Benitez drills the Yankees' Tino Martinez with a fastball after giving up a game-turning three-run homer to Bernie Williams. A brawl ensues, resulting in the suspension of Benitez and four other players.

Tuesday: The Cardinals' Mark McGwire hits three two-run home runs in Philadelphia, giving him 20 homers and 52 RBIs in 41 games.

Friday: The Marlins trade Piazza to the Mets for three top prospects: Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall and -- probably -- Geoff Goetz.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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