Playoffs in sight for D'backs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The National League wild-card race is so crowded that it's nearly impossible to predict who will emerge as the final team to reach the playoffs.

Not impossible.

Nearly impossible.

The seven teams that entered yesterday jammed within five games of each other for the final NL playoff slot all have a decent chance to win the wild card, but the Arizona Diamondbacks are going to sneak into October through the back door.

Chalk one up to the power of counterintuitive thinking, since all the obvious indicators would argue against the slithery sidewinders from the desert emerging as the hottest team down the stretch.

The schedule doesn't favor them. They play a bunch of games against the first-place San Francisco Giants, who have dominated them all year. They play nine of their final 12 games on the road, where they have not played particularly well this season. And they'll have to ward off the pitching-rich Los Angeles Dodgers during a tough stretch in mid-September just to hold second place in the NL West.

So, why would anyone predict that they will be the club to emerge from the crowded wild-card field? Well, once you rule out stupidity, you have to look at the nature of the team. The Diamondbacks have been going against the grain all season. They should have been out of the race a long time ago, but they overcame a rash of major injuries to battle back into playoff contention.

They continue to search for consistency from their starting rotation but remain in the wild-card hunt in spite of the combined 10-13 record of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson.

Schilling (7-7) has been outstanding since he returned from the disabled list in mid-July, and he has been particularly overpowering over the past couple of weeks. Johnson (3-6) has been stumbling around in the dark since he returned from the DL on July 20, but he appears to have made some helpful adjustments at just the right time for the Diamondbacks to make a late-season move.

Johnson had rolled up a 7.23 ERA in a string of three discouraging starts, but he came back with a solid six-inning performance against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday night (six innings, two runs) after a mechanical change in his delivery.

"I thought it was a tremendous step in the right direction. I thought there was a marked improvement over his last time out," Arizona manager Bob Brenly said. "I felt his slider was much sharper for the most part, and his velocity was good."

If both Schilling and Johnson pitch well, the Diamondbacks should inch back toward the top of the wild-card standings the next couple of weeks. They'll have to hold their own in two more series against the Giants, but also have a lot of games left against less challenging competition.

Claussen sits down

The Reds have shut down top minor league pitching prospect Brandon Claussen, who was acquired from the New York Yankees in the deal for third baseman Aaron Boone.

Claussen, who underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery 14 months ago, was hit hard in his last outing for Triple-A Louisville, but Reds officials insist that the decision was made to preserve his arm for next season.

"I was very fortunate to be able to answer the bell on every fifth day because the odds were kind of against me," Claussen said. "Last year at this time I had a cast on my arm, and I was wondering if I was ever going to play again. To be in the situation where I'm at right now, I couldn't be more thankful. We just want to be careful so I can be successful for this team in the future."

Cubs put to test

The Chicago Cubs have lost the firm grip they held on the NL Central lead earlier this season, but manager Dusty Baker is looking forward to the stretch drive - come what may.

"Push hasn't come to shove in a long time [in Chicago]," Baker said. "It's a great situation. Everybody doesn't like to be in that situation, but you hope they do. You find out a lot of times it's the most unlikely of heroes."

The Cubs already have to consider this season a success. There's still a week left in August, but they are about to eclipse their victory total (67) from last year.

Baker is going to get a lot of credit for turning the team around, and rightfully so. He's still stinging from the opposite feeling he got in San Francisco after falling just short of the World Series title last year.

Tastes great, less filling

When Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas announced recently that he planned to swing for the fences more during the final weeks of the season, manager Jerry Manuel responded that he would rather see the Big Hurt hurt the competition with a higher batting average and more RBIs.

Manuel was happy to settle for the four RBIs he got from Thomas' two-homer performance in Monday night's comeback victory over the Anaheim Angels. Thomas entered yesterday with 32 home runs in an impressive season that has propelled the White Sox to the top of the AL Central standings.

"He got four RBIs tonight. That's what I was happy about," Manuel said. "If he responds every time we kind of have a little something, that's fine with me, too. We'll have another one tomorrow."

Zaun released

The Houston Astros designated former Orioles catcher Gregg Zaun for assignment Wednesday for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release.

Zaun, the nephew of Orioles coach Rick Dempsey, had struggled at the plate, batting .217 with one homer and three RBIs in 59 games as the backup to Brad Ausmus. The Astros called up prospect Raul Chavez to fill the reserve role.

"We're just trying to get better and as we look ahead, we just feel like Chavez gives us a little better option as the No. 2-spot catcher," Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker said. "Not to take anything away from Zaunny, but I was just disappointed in what he contributed. I know he feels like he could have done better. It's tough when you don't play a lot and I understand that."

If Zaun should have seen it coming, he didn't, but he didn't make any excuses.

"I didn't get it done," he said. "I had good years in this role, but unfortunately for me and the Astros, I just didn't do my job as well as they expected me to."

Jordan finally an Oriole?

Former Milford Mill star Brian Jordan is expected to be fully recovered from July 11 knee surgery by the time spring camps open next year, but he probably won't be back with the Dodgers.

Jordan has indicated that he wants to return for the 2004 season, but the ownership of the team is unsettled and it seems unlikely that the Dodgers will exercise their $10.5 million option on his contract for next year.

"Right now is not a good time to talk, because of their uncertainty," Jordan said. "I want to be 100 percent and give these fans 100 percent of Brian Jordan, so we'll see what happens. ... I have a good relationship [with GM Dan Evans] but it has to be the right time, and this isn't the right time."

If he does not return to the Dodgers, Jordan could be an attractive short-term acquisition for the Orioles, who pursued him before he signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Braves four years ago.

A's distress

Just when you thought the Oakland A's were ready to overrun the Seattle Mariners in the AL West, injuries to cornerstone starters Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson have put their division title drive in serious doubt.

Hudson suffered a bruised wrist when he was hit by a batted ball and Mulder has a stress fracture in his right hip and will likely miss the rest of the regular season. The A's need veteran John Halama and exciting newcomer Rich Harden to step up alongside Barry Zito if they are to remain viable in the division and wild-card races.

"We're doing the best we can with what we have," A's manager Ken Macha said. "When you have an injury in baseball, that happens. We're going to have to deal with it. Other teams do."

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

THE SCHMUCK QUOTIENT

If you haven't heard, the All-Star Game is going to be played at Detroit's Comerica Park in 2005.

The reason you might not have heard is that Major League Baseball and the Detroit Tigers made the announcement on the afternoon of Aug. 14, about an hour after the start of the largest blackout in American history.

It isn't often that baseball has anything positive to announce in relation to Detroit and the lowly Tigers, so you'd think someone would have had the good sense to hold the news for a few days to get the maximum public relations benefit from it. Think again. Baseball and its bad news bengals rate a 7.0 on the Schmuck Stupidity Scale.

TEAM RANKINGS

1. Yankees (4)

Now, if Roger Clemens would just take the rest of the team with him to the 2004 Olympics, the Red Sox might have a chance to win someday.

2. Braves (1)

They're going to win 100 games and they still won't be able to sell out Turner Field for the Division Series.

3. Mariners (2)

Should find smoother sailing with A's rotation all banged up.

4. Giants (3)

Taking a well-deserved rest, and who in that division is going to do anything about it?

5. Athletics (6)

Still waiting for that big move. Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder injuries leave room to wonder if it will ever come.

6. Phillies (9)

Can Larry Bowa keep it together down the stretch?

7. Marlins (8)

Swam upstream so fast that no one believes they can keep it up.

8. Red Sox (5)

Even Byung-Hyun Kim thinks Boston media is too negative, and he doesn't speak English.

9. White Sox (14)

The Big Hurt is back with a vengeance and the White Sox suddenly look very formidable.

10. Diamondbacks (7)

The revenge of the Big Unit also is at hand.

11. Twins (15)

Erstwhile AL Central favorites are back in business, but the chemistry of the division race has changed dramatically.

12. Astros (12)

Roy Oswalt on schedule to return in September, but groin injury remains troublesome.

13. Cubs (11)

Should eclipse last year's win total (67) any minute. Time to show Dusty Baker some love.

14. Expos (17)

Washington to MLB: If you don't make a decision soon, there's no guarantee relocation bid will still be on table.

15. Royals (10)

Counted them out when they faded after big start in April. Might be resilient enough to weather this storm, too.

16. Cardinals (13)

Albert Pujols, not Barry Bonds, will be the National League MVP. Bet the Gateway Arch on it.

17. Dodgers (16)

Can't write them off as long as they remain well-armed.

18. Rockies (18)

Playoff hopes have faded, but Rocks aren't showing any quit.

19. Rangers (24)

A-Rod is earning his money; Rangers finally are earning a little respect.

20. Blue Jays (19)

One more go-to starter and this would have been a very interesting team.

21. Angels (21)

Title defense has been a downer, but new owner should lift spirits.

22. Pirates (22)

Reggie Sanders barely got a sniff in the free-agent market. Now, he's smelling like a rose.

23. Orioles (20)

Still haunted by last year's 4-32 finish, but this isn't last year and this isn't last year's team.

24. Reds (23)

More Pete Rose managerial rumors should start cropping up.

25. Indians (25)

Closer is 0-7 with eight blown saves, and he's complaining about bullpen demotion.

26. Devil Rays (27)

Despite the record, the terrible stadium and the clueless upper management, this team has spunk.

27. Mets (26)

Playing their best baseball of the year, though that isn't saying a whole lot.

28. Brewers (28)

Everything you ever wanted in a struggling small-market team ... and less.

29. Padres (29)

Lucky Ray Kroc doesn't own the team anymore. The new ballpark would be shaped like a Big Mac.

30. Tigers (30)

Should register 100th defeat before the week is out. Proud franchise has hit rock bottom.

(Last week's rankings in parentheses)

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