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With NL East in pursuit, injuries might trip Braves


A question to ponder after the passing of last night's waiver deadline: Would baseball allow a postseason without the Atlanta Braves?

The Braves have gone from America's Team to an orthopedist's dream. They're also in danger of ceding the NL East lead to the New York Mets and only a whisper ahead of the wild-card pack. John Smoltz remains bothered by a sore right elbow that has landed him on the disabled list twice this season. Shortstop Walt Weiss continues to struggle with injuries, exposing the Braves to released Oriole Ozzie Guillen's antics as a starter. Catcher Javy Lopez is out for the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament that will require surgery tomorrow. Light-hitting Eddie Perez assumed a starting role, and the Braves quickly traded for San Diego Padres catcher Greg Myers.

The season ganged up on Lopez early. His mother died in May, and he injured the knee last month on a steal attempt. Team doctors were pessimistic Lopez could last the season playing on the injury.

"I told myself I'd play until something happened and then I'd quit," Lopez said. "This is best for me if I want to play a long time. Hopefully, this is the one year where everything happened."

The Braves are also without No. 5 starter Odalis Perez because of a torn medial collateral ligament in his left elbow. Perez, who passed left-hander Bruce Chen as the Braves' most available pitching prospect in spring training, must undergo Tommy John surgery and will likely miss all of next season.

"As soon as I heard the news, I've been worrying and crying," said Perez, only 21. "I don't know if I'll be out one year or two years."

Suddenly, the Braves found themselves unable to deal from a position of pitching strength. Chen has been installed in place of Perez.

Braves manager Bobby Cox may be feeling some heat. After his heavily favored team buckled in last October's National League Championship Series to the Padres, Cox was forced by general manager John Schuerholz to fire longtime hitting coach Clarence Jones, who was later hired as an "outfield coach" by the Cleveland Indians. The offense is down from last year's record numbers, and pitching coach Leo Mazzone has been forced into rehabilitating the confidence of the game's most imposing rotation.

Kevin Millwood, the Braves' only All-Star pitcher this season, ranks among the league's top five in wins, ERA, strikeouts, winning percentage and opponents' batting average. However, without a continued resurgence by Greg Maddux and a turnaround for Tom Glavine, the Braves could conceivably miss the postseason for the first time since 1990. As they say in the Olympic City, "Let the Games begin."

Kenmore Square mutiny

The supposedly overachieving Boston Red Sox were the darlings of the American League in May and June as the Olde Towne Gang appeared poised to make the wild-card race a formality. Then closer Tom Gordon went down with a right elbow injury that has forced manager Jimy Williams to realign his pitching staff. It also created factions in the organization with allegations of conflict of interest. (Team physician Arthur Pappas is a part owner.) The appearance of vulnerability was enough to give the Orioles a sense of hope for the postseason.

The latest rift has emerged between second baseman Jose Offerman and Williams. In the first season of a four-year, $26 million contract lampooned by the industry, Offerman was displaced by Donnie Sadler during last week's important series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

"I'm not going to be the one to look stupid. They're paying me too much money to be on the bench," Offerman said. "We're losing some games. If they want to say it's my fault, then that's the way it goes, but I'm busting my [behind] every day. I know I'm not hitting the ball well, but that's not the excuse they gave me. The excuse they gave me was [Sadler's defense]."

One of Williams' strengths as Red Sox manager has been internalizing clubhouse friction. That may no longer apply. He has been vague in explaining Offerman's reduced playing time. After speaking with Williams on Tuesday, Offerman emerged to hurl equipment against his locker.

Worse, perhaps, is that injured ace Pedro Martinez has publicly sided with his Dominican countryman.

"As a player, I don't understand that point. Why would you pay a guy that money to sit on the bench?" Martinez said. "I know him probably the best of anybody on the team. I understand how he's feeling and of anyone here he'd probably talk to me, but he hasn't talked to me. Jimy told him he's lost his job. It doesn't make any sense."

The movie was NR

You've got to think additional heads are going to roll in the New York Yankees' production room. Earlier this year, an obscenity-laced piece of rap blared over the Yankee Stadium sound system to announce outfielder Tony "Fiasco" Tarasco's plate appearance. (OK, a mistake anyone could make, especially since the music was at Tarasco's request.) Worse, perhaps, happened last weekend during a series against the Indians.

When Indians pitcher Mark Langston faced Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, the stadium scoreboard showed a replay of Martinez's Game 1 grand slam against the former Padre in last year's World Series.

Red-faced over the breach of protocol, Yankees manager Joe Torre quickly apologized after the incident caused a clubhouse and press-box furor.

"I just thought that was in bad taste. It's something that shouldn't have happened. The Yankees should be above that type of thing," said Torre.

Turn back the uniforms

For those who considered the Orioles' futuristic uniforms on Turn Ahead the Clock Day last Sunday a stretch, the thinly veiled marketing ploy could have been much worse. The Mets tried a similar promotion on Tuesday, except they included rather unflattering images of their players as mutants. Rickey Henderson had a third eye and Yoda-like ears. Benny Agbayani was depicted with green skin. Reporters referred to the team logo as a cross between a witch's symbol and Tinky Winky of "Teletubbies" fame.

Said pitcher Orel Hershiser, an unabashed traditionalist: "If we can't sell the product the way the product is, let's just give it a rest."

Henderson said: "Everyone looked silly, but they went overboard on me. The umpires were laughing at me. I hit a line drive, and the guys were saying, 'Hit the third eye.' "

Manager Bobby Valentine already was in a nasty mood because of a last weekend's pre-game ceremony to honor Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa while the club ignored milestones recently reached by Hershiser (200 wins) and Henderson (fifth place on the all-time runs list). The Sosa ceremony featured several of the slugger's Dominican countrymen, including Mets assistant general manager Omar Minaya, but excluded Mets closer Armando Benitez.

"This [Shea Stadium] is supposed to be their stage," Valentine said. "I like to see the fans come and fill the ballpark, but I also like to see the team appreciated the way it should be."

An A for effort

As the Orioles hit town tonight, those battlin' Oakland Athletics may be about to hit the wall. But it won't be because of lack of movement.

The A's trade of starting pitcher Kenny Rogers to the Mets depleted their rotation while supposedly improving clubhouse chemistry. General manager Billy Beane followed up by acquiring pitcher Omar Olivares and second baseman Randy Velarde from the woebegone Anaheim Angels for prospects. However, the A's 8-6 start following the All-Star break was diminished because they led every game and because the Texas Rangers refused to lose.

The bullpen, which hasn't been addressed, sprung a leak because of Billy Taylor. The A's closer produced 22 saves in 36 first-half appearances and owned a 2.41 ERA. Taylor began the second half with 0-1 with three blown save chances and a 17.36 ERA in six games.

"It's a wait-and-see situation," said manager Art Howe. "I'm happy with what I have. These guys have played hard for me all year."

The A's are three games off the wild-card lead and have the league's best home record; however, they entered play yesterday farther from the AL West lead than at any time this season.

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