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Cards may skip arms race

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The St. Louis Cardinals were supposed to be one of the deepest, most balanced teams in baseball when the season began four months ago. Now, with the deadline for making trades without waivers looming just four days away, they have to wonder if there's enough help available to keep them in the hunt for a playoff berth.

They already were looking to make a major pitching acquisition before right-hander Matt Morris was hit by a line drive Monday night and suffered a broken bone in his pitching hand. The club estimated that he'll be lost at least until September, and there is the possibility that he won't be ready to pitch again until next season.

General manager Walt Jocketty has intensified his efforts to find help, but it's going to be more difficult to make a reasonable deal now that opposing clubs know that the Cardinals are desperate.

Team executive Bob Gebhard was in New York for the series between the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays early in the week, apparently to check on Blue Jays pitcher Kelvim Escobar and Yankees left-hander Sterling Hitchcock. The Cardinals also figure to make another run at Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson, who earlier was linked with St. Louis outfielder J.D. Drew in trade speculation.

Trouble is, they aren't really in a position to trade a productive offensive player, because top hitter Jim Edmonds continues to complain of soreness in his right shoulder - a problem that he aggravated in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game.

Edmonds has taken a cortisone injection and continues to play, but the Cardinals have to accept the possibility that he may need to sit down for a week or two to allow the inflammation to subside.

So far, the Cardinals have benefited from a slow-developing division race to stay close to the top of the National League Central, but the first-place Houston Astros appear to be gathering momentum for a strong stretch run.

Jocketty is caught in a competitive conundrum. The Cardinals are too good to give up on 2003, but the roster situation has become so problematical that it may not make sense to make a deal in this trade market.

Cubs are set

The Chicago Cubs moved decisively to upgrade their attack with the acquisition of third baseman Aramis Ramirez and speedy outfielder Kenny Lofton, but don't expect another shoe to fall during the final days before the Thursday deadline.

"If our pitching's very, very good the rest of the way, then we have a chance," GM Jim Hendry told reporters. "Hopefully we've filled in a few of the cracks that might have been causing some of our shortcomings some days."

The outlook still isn't very good. The Astros are starting to distance themselves from the other NL Central contenders and the Cubs might have the toughest August schedule in baseball. That schedule includes seven head-to-head games against the Astros in the next 3 1/2 weeks.

Strange stat

For all the talk of the effect that a healthy Curt Schilling and a healthy Randy Johnson may have on the fortunes of the Arizona Diamondbacks down the stretch, here's a stat that should make you wonder.

Through Wednesday, the Diamondbacks are 8-16 this year when both Johnson and Schilling are on the active roster. They are 24-12 when both are on the disabled list. When at least one of them has been on the DL, they are 46-31.

Of course, neither pitcher was 100 percent healthy even when they were active during the first four months of the season, which - along with the club's early-season offensive problems - helps explain the soft performance. They figure to be more effective over the last two months of the season, which should keep Arizona in the wild-card hunt.

Cooldown cycle

The Diamondbacks surged back into the NL West race in spite of a spate of first-half injuries to key players, but their rebound unraveled in a four-game series against the division-leading San Francisco Giants that ended Thursday at Pacific Bell Park.

The Giants won four straight to push them 11 games out of first place.

Arizona has been dominated in the season series (10-2), which accounts for much of the difference between the two clubs in the standings.

"They're better than us," Schilling said. "They've outplayed us, they've outpitched us, they've outhit us, they've out-defended us. And that's the reason we're nine games out [after Tuesday night's loss]. We're not playing well enough to be in first place."

No urgency

The sense of urgency to improve the Boston Red Sox rotation has subsided, because 38-year-old John Burkett has been on a roll. He has a 5-1 record in his past eight appearances ( seven starts) and has more victories (eight) than anyone in the club's rotation except 11-game winner Derek Lowe. The club has won eight of his past 11 starts.

Old pro

Cleveland Indians veteran Ellis Burks could go home and take the rest of the summer off if he were so inclined, but he has chosen to continue traveling with the fourth-place club even though he will be out for the rest of the season after extensive surgery to correct nerve damage in his elbow.

Instead of taking it easy, Burks has taken on a quasi-coaching role, working with many of the Indians' youthful players as they battle through a difficult organizational growth period.

There is no guarantee that he'll be healthy enough to play next year, and the Indians are expected to decline a club option on his contract for the 2004 season, which makes his desire to stay with the team this year even more admirable.

Ageless wonder?

The Los Angeles Dodgers were quick to congratulate themselves on the burst of production they got from 44-year-old Rickey Henderson in his first week with the team, but he has looked very much his age in his past three starts.

Henderson's past six games included three straight 0-for-4 performances, an 0-for-5 effort and two pinch-hitting appearances (hit and walk) that dropped his batting average to .188. And it's not a deceptive .188, even though he hit two home runs soon after his return to the major leagues from a stint with the independent Newark Bears.

Henderson also entered today with a .235 on-base percentage, which means that the game's all-time greatest leadoff man has walked just twice in his first 34 trips to the plate.

The Dodgers have every right, however, to feel better about the contribution of outfielder Jeromy Burnitz, who entered today's game batting .263 (10-for-38) with three homers and seven RBIs since he was acquired from the New York Mets.

A's gotta have heart

The Oakland A's still are within striking distance of the first-place Seattle Mariners, but they continue to search for some indication that the heart of their batting order is going to show up for the stretch drive.

Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada and Erubiel Durazo are mired in July run production slumps at a time when the club is positioned well to make a run at the seemingly vulnerable M's.

"You can take the lineup and juggle it any way you want, but the three, four, five, six guys in your lineup have got to go out and be productive for you," manager Ken Macha said. "We've gone through quite a stretch lately. We just need a little extra push, which we'd get if we could get one of these guys going."

Not overconfident

The Giants opened the second half on fire and took a double-digit lead over the Diamondbacks, but manager Felipe Alou is not ready to declare victory in the NL West.

"I feel good, but I don't feel confident, said Alou of his team's position. "I said earlier that if I had a 15-game lead with 16 games to go, I'd be very confident."

The Giants know as well as any team that a 10-game lead - though very comfortable at this point in the season - does not guarantee a title. They held a 10-game lead in late July 1993, only to lose the NL West title to the Atlanta Braves and miss the pre-wild-card playoffs despite 103 victories.

Alou knows not to count his chickens, too. His Montreal Expos had the best record in baseball when the 1994 season was cut short by the cataclysmic labor war that also wiped out the World Series.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

THE SCHMUCK QUOTIENT

The Houston Chronicle reported that after a Houston jury acquitted Tampa Bay Devil Rays shortstop Julio Lugo of domestic violence charges last week, some jurors asked him for his autograph. That not only makes a mockery of the justice system, but it also proves that none of the jurors were real baseball fans, since no one who knows anything about the game would waste the ink to get Lugo's signature. Give them a seven on the Schmuck Stupidity Scale.

TEAM RANKINGS

1. Giants (3)

Disposed of formerly surging Diamondbacks in surprisingly short order.

2. Braves (1)

Bold offseason pitching shake-up has been vindicated ... and then some.

3. Yankees (2)

Should have asked for ID when Sidney Ponson took the mound Thursday. Couldn't have been the same guy.

4. Mariners (4)

Pat Gillick isn't worried. M's likely to stand pat at deadline.

5. Red Sox (5)

Improved pitching depth should keep pressure on rival Yanks.

6. Astros (10)

May be poised to leave Cards and Cubs in their dust.

7. Phillies (9)

Solidly atop the National League wild-card race and built to stay there.

8. Royals (8)

Recharged fans still have to sweat out trade deadline.

9. Athletics (7)

Plenty of untapped offensive potential at heart of lineup. Miguel Tejada, Eriz Chavez slept through July.

10. White Sox (19)

Division title could fall right into their laps if Royals downsize.

11. Cardinals (13)

Bad news Redbirds need dynamic midseason makeover.

12. Dodgers (14)

Rickey Henderson made early splash, but Jeromy Burnitz may be key to offensive resurgence.

13. Angels (11)

Being swept in Baltimore took big bite out of fading world title defense.

14. Marlins (17)

Pitching phenom Dontrelle Willis making Fish look fresh.

15. Orioles (21)

Ponson salary drive has steered Birds back to respectability. The price of poker is going up.

16. Blue Jays (12)

Stay in contention was short-lived. Now, third place isn't even safe.

17. Diamondbacks (6)

Didn't show up for huge head-to-head series against first-place Giants.

18. Twins (20)

Shannon Stewart deal, inevitable momentum shift should revive division title hopes.

19. Expos (15)

Vladimir Guerrero's return might be just the thing to revive wild-card bid.

20. Cubs (16)

Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez will make a difference, but whether that will be a good thing remains to be seen.

21. Rockies (18)

Shawn Chacon showed mettle in Thursday showdown with Kevin Brown in L.A.

22. Pirates (22)

If you have a pulse and a Pirates uniform, you might want to keep a suitcase by the door.

23. Reds (23)

Ken Griffey upbeat about eventual recovery. Can't say the same about Reds.

24. Mets (26)

Eight million stories in the Naked City. Nobody wants to hear this one.

25. Indians (24)

Tough year for young team, but signs of growth are evident.

26. Rangers (25)

This is going to be a very good team someday. Really.

27. Brewers (27)

Plenty of time between Richie Sexson at-bats to stand in line for brats and beer.

28. Padres (28)

Front office signals intention to beef up offensive lineup for 2004.

29. Devil Rays (29)

Not expected to be a big player in this week's tradefest.

30. Tigers (30)

30th place is safe, at least until next expansion.

(Last week's rankings in parentheses)

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