Unmighty 'pens produce weakest marks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Orioles' bullpen has been the target of intense criticism since the club went into the 2-15 nosedive that preceded its recent four-hame winning streak.

Rightfully so, but the Orioles aren't the only team that is having serious bullpen problems and - as a result - having serious trouble staying in contention.

The Houston Astros, who entered the season as one of the favorites in the crowded National League Central, have sunk to the bottom of the division standings, largely because of an uneven performance by their once-dependable relief corps - a problem that came into sharp focus when the Astros blew two seven-run leads within the same week, including a 7-0 advantage in the ninth inning in Milwaukee.

The Astros' 'pen has a combined 5-12 record and has converted just five of 11 save opportunities. Closer Billy Wagner has accounted for almost all of the save deficit (four in nine opportunities) after a fabulous 1999season in which he had 39saves and a 1.57ERA.

The Chicago Cubs are floundering again, and their struggles also are, in large part, related to their bullpen problems. The Cubs' bullpen entered the weekend with a 6-15 record and a 7.56ERA, clearly vying with the Orioles for the dubious distinction of being the worst bullpen in baseball.

The Orioles 'pen entered the weekend series against the Oakland Athletics with a 10-11 won-loss record - far superior to the Astros and Cubs - but also owning the worst save efficiency (six saves in 19opportunities) in either league.

It's a tough call. The Cubs have converted 10 of 21 save opportunities, which is almost respectable for this group, but the ridiculous ERA and the frightening won-loss record combine to give them the worst bullpen in the National League. The Orioles, by virtue of the frequency with which they have blown big leads, might be the worst of all, but some positive developments over the past week have created hope that the club can stabilize its troubled relief situation.

Independent voice

Home run king Hank Aaron holds a high-ranking position in the Atlanta Braves' front office, but that didn't stop him from criticizing the club recently for failing to maintain a link with the city's majority (68percent) black population.

Though the club made overtures to the black community when attendance flagged in the 1980s, Aaron said that little has been done to draw blacks to the ballpark since the club's competitive resurgence in the 1990s.

"They don't need the dollar from the black community," Aaron told reporters. "It's not needed any more. [Blacks] aren't wanted on the field and they're not wanted in the stands. That's the gospel truth."

Part of the problem is the price. It's much more expensive to go to ritzy Turner Field than it was at Fulton County Stadium.

"More African-Americans attended baseball games here [in my day]," Aaron said. "I've been saying all along that the price is just not there for the average black family to come to a baseball game. The price is way out of line. The average black family just doesn't have enough money to come to a baseball game."

Aaron also was critical of baseball's efforts to promote the game among young people in the African-American community, even though the sport has instituted a program to fund baseball facilities in the inner city.

"You don't see in [black] areas the little manicured diamonds or the baseball bats and the mothers and fathers out there in the afternoons," he said. 'The game is being promoted more overseas than it's being promoted here. More kids are not even playing professional baseball. The dwindling of American black players is troublesome."

Life of Brian

Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson may be the most overpowering pitchers in the game - particularly over the past couple of years - but they've got nothing on Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brian Anderson.

Since Aug.23, 1998, Anderson has won 16 of 19 decisions, an .842 winning percentage that is far better than either Martinez (33-9, .786) or Johnson (30-10, .750) over the same period.

Anderson has won 10 straight decisions and the D'backs have won the past 17games that he has started - the third-longest streak of its kind in the post-expansion era. The all-time record is 22, held jointly by Carl Hubbell (1936-37) and Whitey Ford (1950-53).

Obviously, numbers can be a little bit deceiving, otherwise Anderson wouldn't have spent part of last season in the bullpen.

Medical miracle

Diamondbacks starter Todd Stottlemyre has what doctors have described as a 70percent tear in his rotator cuff, but that didn't keep him from taking over the major-league lead with eight victories on Wednesday.

Stottlemyre exceeded 100pitches for the first time this season during a seven-inning performance in which Arizona rallied to turn a possible loss into another big victory. Manager Buck Showalter has imposed a 100-pitch limit on him for the foreseeable future, but that has not kept him from piling up the wins.

"That really says a lot for our bullpen and our two catchers and the way the team has played behind me offensively and defensively," Stottlemyre said. "I don't take any of them [the wins] for granted."

Home-grown

The pitching staff that has carried the Chicago White Sox to the top of the American League Central is made up largely of organizationally developed players.

Four of the five starters - James Baldwin, Mike Sirotka, Jim Parque and Kip Wells - and reliever Kevin Beirne were drafted by the club. Relievers Bill Simas, Bob Howry, Sean Lowe and Scott Eyre were acquired as minor-leaguers. Only Cal Eldred and Keith Foulke got their first major-league wins elsewhere.

That's only half of it. The White Sox' minor-league system is packed with up-and-coming pitchers. Now, if only people would start showing up at the ballpark, they might get a look at a very good team in the making.

Rumor rebuttal

When Yankees scout Gene Michael showed up at Wrigley Field recently, rumors began to fly that the defending world champions were scoping out sluggers Sammy Sosa and Henry Rodriguez. The most specific rumor had Rodriguez going to New York for promising outfielder Ricky Ledee and minor-league relievers Jay Tessmer and Mike Buddie.

Maybe something will happen, but Sosa says it's way too early for the Cubs to give up on the season.

"It's not the time to make that move," Sosa told reporters. "We have to stay together. What are they going to do, bring in some young kids? Then nobody will go to the ballpark. Jeez, we're not even two months into the season, but everybody thinks it's September."

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