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Brewers quietly catching up to playoff chase

Pardon Ned Yost for being a little defensive. When you're the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, defending your credibility eventually becomes a way of life.

"We're not a fluke," Yost said Thursday night, after the rejuvenated Brew Crew pulled off a three-game sweep in Colorado to go seven games over .500 for the first time since May 1998 before dropping three straight to the Pirates.

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Maybe not, but Bud's Beleaguered Brewers being just six games out of first place in the National League Central at this late date is, well, a little bewildering.

Isn't this the same team that traded home run machine Richie Sexson to the Arizona Diamondbacks over the winter and - by all outward appearances - abandoned hope of competing this season?

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Now, they're sneaking up the standings, though their newfound status as a division contender will be put to the test during a 29-game stretch against National League Central opponents that began Friday. Eleven of those games will be against the Chicago Cubs.

"I don't know what's going to happen the rest of the way," Yost said. "I don't look past tomorrow. But we're a solid baseball team. We've played solid baseball all year, all the way back to spring training."

Meanwhile, the franchise is up for sale and there are at least four prospective ownership groups under review by Major League Baseball. The team is expected to fetch a price of about $180 million. Perhaps more importantly, two of the prospective owners are rich businessmen who might be in a position to increase the club's small-market payroll.

Suddenly, the future is so bright, Brewers fans have to wear shades instead of bags over their heads.

Expos in limbo

The Montreal Expos headed for Puerto Rico this weekend with the worst record in baseball and little hope that things are going to turn around anytime soon.

What more can anyone expect of a team that lost its two best players (Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez) over the winter, has to spend about two-thirds of the season on the road and is waiting for word from Major League Baseball on where it will be located next year.

"They [the players] are only human," said general manager Omar Minaya, as the club packed up to leave Philadelphia on Thursday night. "I don't think anybody would be immune to that."

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The Expos are in the midst of a 27-game stretch of road games and "home" games in Puerto Rico. It will get easier after the All-Star break, but the season is already lost.

"We knew going in that it was going to be rough the first half," Minaya said. "It was more spread out last year. Originally, I said that the team was going to have to stay healthy [to be competitive in the first half]. The big 'if' was staying healthy and we haven't done that. It makes it more difficult."

Keeping Garcia

No wonder the Chicago White Sox feel confident that they can re-sign newly acquired pitcher Freddie Garcia, who is eligible to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Garcia, who won his White Sox debut Wednesday, lives across the street from manager Ozzie Guillen in Caracas, Venezuela, and is engaged to Guillen's wife's niece. Guillen says Garcia is his best friend.

"Bullfights, golfing," Guillen said. "In the winter, from 6 o'clock in the morning, we're together."

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It's the kind of relationship only a sharp agent can come between.

I-Rod sizzling

So much for the notion that Ivan Rodriguez would get discouraged at spacious Comerica Park and quickly lose his desire to play in Detroit.

I-Rod batted .500 in June (43-for-86) to become the first Tiger with more than 70 at-bats ever to bat sea level for an entire month.

"Those are PlayStation or Xbox numbers," teammate Rondell White said. "I've played with some great players, but I've never seen anything like this."

Strange parallel

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Rodriguez claims he can see some similarities between the Tigers and last year's World Series champion Florida Marlins. No one seriously believes there's any chance that the Tigers will go from 43 wins in 2003 to a world title this October, but get this:

Both teams were 36-39 after 75 games and both teams won Game No. 75 on a walk-off home run in the 11th inning. Cue the Twilight Zone theme.

Wood getting close

Cubs starter Kerry Wood is scheduled to begin an injury rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday and said he hopes to be back in the starting rotation the weekend before the All-Star break.

The Cubs remain near the top of the NL Central despite the fact that Wood and Mark Prior have not been in the starting rotation at the same time this year. Prior is back after missing a big chunk of the first half with elbow and Achilles' soreness. Wood has been out with a sore right elbow, but hopes to be ready to throw 80 pitches in a week or so.

Rumor machine

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The Orioles are believed to be making a push to acquire unhappy Anaheim Angels starting pitcher Ramon Ortiz, but the price apparently isn't going down just because Ortiz asked out of the organization after he was moved to the bullpen recently.

"Ramon has a place on this club - there's a role for him - and if he gets back to the rotation, that role will be expanded," manager Mike Scioscia said. "Pitching depth is always important. If Bill [GM Bill Stoneman] finds something that will give us a piece we don't have, then I'm sure we'll consider it, but to give Ramon away just to trade him? No. We won't do that."

Bush apology

No. 1 draft choice Matt Bush made a public apology for the bar scuffle that led to him being suspended indefinitely by the San Diego Padres. He told The San Diego Union Tribune that he has learned from his mistake and wants to prove all over again why he was picked No. 1.

"I just want to let the Padres know that I'm really sorry and I'm not the kind of guy who would turn around and do the same thing later on down the road," Bush said. "I'm going to definitely learn from it and change my outlook on things and be a better person all in all - not just when people are watching, but when I'm by myself."

Stat of the week

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If you think the Cleveland Indians are playing over their heads, consider this: The same team that appears to be overachieving by flirting with .500 has lost 19 games in which it was tied or leading from the seventh inning on.

If the Indians had held onto just nine of those games, they would be five games ahead in the American League Central.

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

Starved for success

THEATER OF THE ABSURD

ESPN baseball analyst Dave Campbell had some advice for struggling pitchers Bartolo Colon and Sidney Ponson on a recent Sunday Night Baseball radio broadcast, and he didn't exactly nibble at the plate when he delivered it.

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He suggested that both pitchers "push" themselves ... away from the dinner table.

"It doesn't seem politically correct to tell somebody they're fat, but Bartolo Colon is fat, and so is Sidney Ponson," Campbell said. "They both have a lot of money, and they need to push themselves away from the dinner table. I mean, after all these excuses about mechanics and all this - well, they have tried to fix their mechanics. Try pushing your butt away from the table."

TEAM RANKINGS

1. Yankees (1)

Leaving no doubt who's The Boss in the American League East.

2. Cardinals (2)

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Revived rotation making NL Central look like Busch League.

3. Rangers (3)

No strangers anymore. This is a very good young team.

4. Giants (4)

SBC Park rubber chicken promotion angers fake animal rights groups.

5. Athletics (8)

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Pitching injuries throw AL West challenge very much in doubt.

6. White Sox (12)

U.S. Cellular Field best home run park in baseball this year.

7. Red Sox (6)

Dropping in AL East, and why not? They're dropping everything else.

8. Cubs (7)

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Have the Astros talking to themselves.

9. Padres (15)

Giants trying to upend bold Schmuck prediction. Who are they fooling?

10. Phillies (13)

Larry's Wallbangers are enjoying their cozy new ballyard.

11. Marlins (9)

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Still getting over Carl Pavano/Alyssa Milano breakup.

12. Angels (11)

Entered weekend ranked sixth in hitting, sixth in ERA and sixth in fielding percentage. At least they're consistent.

13. Twins (5)

Joe Nathan has emerged as top-flight closer. Who knew?

14. Brewers (16)

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Entered weekend seven games above .500. Pigs seen flying over Miller Park.

15. Reds (10)

Right in the middle of five-team division race. Can they stay there?

16. Astros (17)

Carlos Beltran hits the ground running in Houston. NL Central race could be a classic.

17. Dodgers (14)

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Recent stumbles haven't seriously damaged playoff hopes.

18. Devil Rays (18)

May have cooled off some, but never a pushover for the Orioles.

19. Braves (21)

Still close because nobody wants to take control of NL East.

20. Indians (20)

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The future isn't now, but it doesn't appear to be that far off anymore.

21. Mets (19)

Can't even figure out which uniform to wear. How are they supposed to compete with the Yankees?

22. Tigers (22)

Could surpass 2003 win total by All-Star break. Now that's a turnaround.

23. Blue Jays (23)

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Get ready for a July fire sale, and don't forget to factor in the Canadian exchange rate.

24. Orioles (24)

Starting rotation finally showing signs of life. Can rest of team be revived?

25. Pirates (28)

Kris Benson now the top starting pitcher on the market. Hint. Hint.

26. Mariners (25)

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Can't explain it, but feel a strange kinship with reliever J.J. Putz.

27. Royals (26)

Post-Beltran era has been loads of fun so far.

28. Rockies (27)

Have whittled team ERA to 5.97. Can a playoff berth be far behind?

29. Diamondbacks (29)

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Bob Brenly latest manager to fall victim to curse of Roberto Alomar.

30. Expos (30)

In surprising development, officials in Puerto Rico announce deal to build privately funded Ballpark De Angelos in San Juan.

(Last week's ranking in parentheses)


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