As expected, Cubs prove surprising contenders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Chicago Cubs glowed like a super nova -- winning 10 straight games to climb to the top of the National League Central standings -- and raised the question again.

Are they good enough to get to the World Series for the first time since 1945?

The answer is not clear. The Cubs were a popular dark-horse pick in the preseason because of the off-season acquisition of several key veteran players. They would appear to be an even more popular pick now, since the emergence of pitching phenom Kerry Wood and the re-emergence of veteran Steve Trachsel have solidified a pretty good starting rotation.

No sense changing dark horses in the middle of the stream.

Those of us who said at the outset that the Cubs would be the surprise team of 1998 cannot be surprised that they are very much in the hunt for a division title or a wild-card playoff berth. But the lengthy winning streak that created so much excitement in Chicago the past two weeks also is just the thing to give long-suffering Cubs fans a case of -- pardon the expression -- performance anxiety.

The club won 10 straight games. It's not going to get any better than that, and one day later, the Cubs were back looking up at the first-place Houston Astros.

The winning streak was impressive, but it also was largely a one-man show. Outfielder Sammy Sosa, whose spectacular offensive and defensive statistics have justified the 1997 decision to make him one of baseball's highest-paid players, hit 11 home runs in 10 games to carry the Cubs offense through a long and productive 11-game homestand at Wrigley Field.

He's a great player, but that isn't going to happen very often. The Cubs are going to require a more balanced attack if they are going to prevent the Houston Astros from defending their division title. The wild-card race also will be a challenge, with three teams likely to finish well above .500 in the NL West and the New York Mets playing well in the NL East.

Manager Jim Riggleman has to be pleased, however, with the depth of his starting rotation. Wood is getting most of the attention -- and rightfully so -- but Trachsel, Mark Clark, Kevin Tapani and Jeremi Gonzalez have performed as well as a unit as any NL rotation except the gallery of stars in Atlanta.

"I like having reliable people," said Riggleman recently. "I kind of knock on wood saying this, but these guys don't miss starts, they go every fifth day, they do their work between starts."

He might even have enough depth to weather a pitching injury or two, with veteran left-hander Terry Mulholland and right-hander Kevin Foster waiting in the bullpen for a chance to re-enter the rotation.

Are the Cubs good enough to get deep into October? Maybe, but maybe is more than Cubs fans have had in June for quite some time.

The Big Cat

Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey may be the premier home run hitters in baseball, but wouldn't it be something if soon-to-be-37-year-old Andres Galarraga joined them in their pursuit of the single-season home run record.

Galarraga entered the weekend with 25 home runs in 66 games for the Atlanta Braves, a pace that would carry him to 61 homers -- Roger Maris country -- over the course of a full season, but he's keeping his goals within reason.

"You never know what's going to happen in the second half, but the way it's going right now, I'm shooting for 50, no question," Galarraga said.

The club record is 47, held by Eddie Mathews (1953) and Hank Aaron (1971). Galarraga's personal best also is 47, set in 1996 in the thin air of Colorado.

"That's the record, and that's my record," he said. "I'll take 48."

Martinez pounded

Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez has given up four home runs in each of his past two starts, most recently surrendering two to Galarraga (Nos. 24 and 25) and one each to Chipper Jones and Ryan Klesko in a 10-6 victory over the Braves on Wednesday, but there apparently is no cause for concern.

Martinez has been struggling to throw his changeup in the strike zone, but the velocity of his fastball remains consistent. He has given up 12 homers in his past 20 innings, but he is 7-2 and continues to live up to the huge contract he received from the Red Sox over the winter.

Bad news for Baltimore

Red Sox starter Steve Avery apparently has found the secret to renewed success. He has dropped into a three-quarters delivery, and the results have been telling.

He pitched seven shutout innings on Monday for his second consecutive victory and clearly has been reinvigorated by the mechanical change. His velocity has improved, and he has said goodbye to the straight fastball that was his undoing the past couple of years.

"I'm getting movement on the ball I never had before," he said.

That could spell trouble for the Orioles, who had hoped to take advantage of the Red Sox's questionable pitching depth to overcome a seven-game deficit in the wild-card race. If Avery is back to stay, the Red Sox will be difficult to catch.

Self-recrimination

Chicago White Sox manager Jerry Manuel did not mince words after his team was swept in its interleague series with the Cubs last weekend.

"There's no doubt, we're not geared for National League-style baseball," Manuel said. "I don't know what league would be right for us. To be honest, we might be best suited for Triple-A baseball right now."

Ouch.

Gooden mad

Cleveland Indians pitcher Dwight Gooden wasn't happy to hear that the New York Mets had given his number to Hideo Nomo. He apparently was expecting it to be retired at some point.

"I'm shocked," said Gooden. "I've got nothing against Nomo, but to me it's a slap in the face. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it, but I came up through that organization and no one has done more for them than me."

Reds ready to roll over?

Speculation in Cincinnati is that the Reds will soon begin moving their top-paid players to reduce payroll and embark on a massive rebuilding effort, and why not?

The club is at the bottom of the NL Central, the division that was supposed to be the weakest in the league, and appears to have no hope of competing for a playoff spot this year.

Most of the recent trade speculation has revolved around veteran shortstop Barry Larkin, who has made it known that he would be willing to waive his five-and-10 status (players who have five years with the same team and 10 years in the majors have veto power over trades) to go to the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals or Los Angeles Dodgers.

Nothing is imminent, but Padres general manager Kevin Towers said recently that his club would have interest in making a deal for the perennial All-Star.

"If they were looking to move a Barry Larkin, you'd have to have interest," Towers said. "He's one of the best shortstops in the game. That's not knocking our shortstop, but Barry's an All-Star-caliber guy. You'd have to look at him just like you look at a Mike Piazza."

If the Reds decide to dismantle, second baseman Bret Boone, center fielder Reggie Sanders, closer Jeff Shaw, former Orioles right-hander Pete Harnisch and several other veterans might also be available at midseason.

Confidential to O's

If the Orioles still need pitching help come July, Harnisch wouldn't be a bad option. He appears to have recovered fully from the clinical depression that nearly ended his career last year and has emerged as the Reds' most dependable starter.

Tigers ready to turn corner

The first half of the 1998 season has been disappointing for the Detroit Tigers, but there are indications that the club may soon begin an expensive effort to upgrade the team in anticipation of moving into Detroit's new ballpark.

General manager Randy Smith has been making regular inquiries about the top players who figure to be available in the free-agent market this winter, including Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson and recently traded catchers Piazza and Charles Johnson. Though the price to acquire them this year was unrealistic, the Tigers probably will make overtures to at least one marquee player this winter.

It probably will be a pitcher. Johnson will be at the head of everyone's wish list, but Kevin Brown, Todd Stottlemyre and Al Leiter also will be available.

"We're not going to get anywhere by signing more $2 million pitchers," Smith said recently. "Sometimes they come through. Sometimes they don't. We're not going to be interested in pitchers who are a dime a dozen. We definitely want a front-line guy, someone who'll have a positive effect on our pitchers."

The Chief is available

The Cleveland Indians have been trying to trade outfielder Geronimo Berroa for the past two months, and the effort apparently intensified when he refused to go on an injury rehabilitation assignment two weeks ago after spending a month on the disabled list.

It's a tough sell, because the Indians want to get something of value for the veteran outfielder, who makes $2.2 million and has been underused in Cleveland. He has just one pinch-hit at-bat since returning from the DL on June 3.

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