Schilling's return offers sagging Phillies some hope

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- Orioles fans will have to wait a few more days for the return of marquee right-hander Scott Erickson, but Philadelphia Phillies fans are scheduled to get their star pitcher back today.

Right-hander Curt Schilling, who underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery in December, will face the St. Louis Cardinals in the finale of a three-game series at Veterans Stadium.

"I'm going out there against the best-hitting team in baseball," Schilling said Friday. "Why not? There is no better barometer about where I'm at than going against a great hitting team."

Schilling, whose 1999 season was cut short by shoulder soreness, seems confident that his repaired shoulder is ready for prime time. He said his stuff is better than it has been at any other time in the past three or four years.

"I don't think there is any question," he said, "but that's a lot of hollow [talk]. You have to go out and do it."

He hopes that the addition of an effective changeup to his pitching repertoire will make him even more overpowering than he was before the shoulder injury.

The Phillies can only hope he's right. The club has struggled to the worst record in the National League, thanks to a combination of weak offensive production and mediocre pitching. A healthy Schilling could provide a huge boost for a talented, but under-achieving young team.

"Certainly, with the talent we have assembled, we're not going to stay down for long," Schilling said.

There is concern that the Phillies already have dug too big a hole for themselves in a division that includes two of baseball's hottest teams -- the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets. If that turns out to be the case, it won't be long before Schilling finds himself the subject of more trade speculation.

If there was a time when he might have welcomed the possibility of a trade to a contending team, he isn't willing to go near the subject at this uncertain juncture of his career.

"I haven't even looked beyond Sunday," said the former Orioles right-hander. "I'm so anxious that I haven't even thought one day beyond that."

New attitude?

The announcement that Major League Baseball had suspended 16 players for last week's brawl between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox appears to open a new era in on-field discipline.

The breadth of the disciplinary action appears to be a signal that the game's new -- and surprisingly strait-laced -- hierarchy hopes to eradicate the kind of behavior that led to the lengthy fight at Comiskey Park. It is believed to be the largest mass suspension in baseball history.

The suspensions were levied by new vice president of on-field operations Frank Robinson, who apparently has altered his view on appropriate on-field behavior since his days as one of baseball's most hard-nosed players.

Of course, he has to affect a new attitude in his role as the game's czar of discipline.

If nothing else, give the new MLB power structure credit for acting quickly and decisively. Since the sport centralized its decision-making, upper management has been far more likely to act in a dynamic manner. Just ask the old umpires union.

More proof

OK, if the baseball isn't juiced, how do you explain what outfielder Jermaine Dye is doing in Kansas City.

Give Dye credit for putting great wood on the ball this month. He proved last year that he had some pop when he hit 27 homers and drove in 119 runs. But 11 homers in 22 games? Mark McGwire he ain't.

Of course, there are always some out-of-whack numbers during the first month of the season, but they are all over the place this year. Dye achieved a major-league first with 10 homers and 10 doubles in April. Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick set a club record for RBIs in the first month of the season.

Going into the weekend, there were 13 hitters with eight home runs or more -- which works out to a 59-homer pace -- but, oddly enough, McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey weren't among them.

Throw the ball, then duck

Homermania may be feeding on itself, according to San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, who is convinced that the game's home run culture is having an adverse psychological effect on pitchers.

"It's hard with all the exposure, the way balls are flying out," Righetti said recently. "I read where St. Louis set a team record with 42 homers this month [actually, they set a major-league record with 50].

"Somebody's either hitting a homer or you got someone throwing a helmet off your face [during a fight]. You've got these subliminal messages every day on ESPN and all the highlight shows."

Giants bounce back

The Giants got off to a major league-worst 4-11 start, but bounced back to carry a five-game winning streak into the weekend. They were in danger of ceding a huge divisional lead to the first-place Diamondbacks when they went to Phoenix and swept a three-game series last weekend.

"You can't keep the Giants down very long," said second baseman Jeff Kent. "We're a good ballclub. We can play well and we can play bad. Geez, everybody thought we were the freakiest, weirdest team in '97 because everybody outscored us all the time, but we ended up winning the West. So what? You win games, period."

Davis fights on

Former Orioles outfielder Eric Davis, whose battle against colon cancer made him an inspiration to millions, continues to crusade for early detection and treatment. He took part in a news conference at Veterans Stadium on Friday night to promote the "Score Against Colon Cancer" campaign that will hold cancer awareness events at 13 major-league parks on May 26.

He also was honored by Bristol-Myers Squibb Oncology and Immunology for his continuing commitment to cancer research and prevention, as well as his work with children stricken by various forms of the disease.

"That has really enhanced my life," Davis said. "Instead of having two kids, I have a whole force of kids to take care of. ... There are a lot of people out there that care."

Tony Saunders update

Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Tony Saunders is back throwing off a mound and appears to be making progress in his attempt to come back from a grisly arm fracture that threatened his career.

Saunders (Glen Burnie) is pitching every other day, but club officials have yet to put a timetable on his return. The injury was so severe and so painful that manager Larry Rothschild is impressed just by the young left-hander's determination.

"Speaks volumes for his competitiveness," Rothschild said. "He hasn't missed a beat in this whole rehab. ... He's done great."

Saunders insists that he has erased the painful memory of the night when his arm snapped during his delivery.

'That had to happen the first day I picked the ball up again," he said. "I started throwing about three months ago. I had to forget about it. It's not something you can sit and think about and still throw. The quicker you forget about it, the better off you are."

Self-effacing quote of week

Cincinnati Reds GM Jim Bowden, after his club was swept and outscored, 36-7, by the Los Angeles Dodgers:

"For whatever reason right now, we're atrocious. We're just playing bad baseball. You can't put too much camouflage on it. Right now, the general manager stinks, the starting pitchers stink, the relief pitchers stink, the hitters and fielders stink. We need to buy some deodorant and cologne."

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