Bat crown may fit Suzuki

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Orioles haven't had an American League batting champion since Frank Robinson's Triple Crown year of 1966, and unless Melvin Mora starts hitting like it's May again, it probably won't happen again this year.

Mora had a nice run, and so did Detroit Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, but now it's starting to look like Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki will run away with the crown.

Suzuki, who won the batting title as a rookie when he hit .350 in 2001, took over the lead on Tuesday after going 6-for-6 in a doubleheader against the Orioles.

Entering the weekend, Suzuki was at .359, Rodriguez was at .345 and Mora was at .339.

It's not often that Suzuki gets philosophical about his accomplishments, but he started putting things in perspective on Tuesday at Camden Yards. He realized he'd come a long way since leaving his old team, Orix Blue Wave, in Japan to play in the big leagues after the 2000 season.

"When I look at the records and see where my place in the history of the game might be, I guess you could say it was a good decision to come here," Suzuki said through a translator. "It's not just me. Maybe I'll have an effect on others in the international part of the game."

Suzuki, 30, will likely become the first player in history to start his major league career with four consecutive 200-hit seasons. He entered the weekend with 170 hits, which puts him on pace to finish with 255.

"I'm not a big guy, and hopefully kids could look at me and see that I'm not muscular and not physically imposing, that I'm just a regular guy," said Suzuki, who is listed at 5 feet 9, 172 pounds. "So if somebody with a regular body can get into the record books, kids can look at that. That would make me happy."

Mora has flirted with the batting lead each of the past two seasons. But after injuring his hand last year, he hit just .223 after the All-Star break.

This year, he missed a month with foot and hamstring injuries, but after hitting .402 in May, he sagged to .271 in June and .266 for July.

"I don't think about it," Mora said of the batting title. "All I think about is winning games. I just want to continue to hit and be productive for the team."

Rodriguez, who was bidding to become the first catcher ever to win the AL batting crown, has experienced an even sharper decline than Mora.

On July 1, Rodriguez was at .384, while Suzuki was at .320.

"He's struggling right now, he's a human being," Tigers manager Alan Trammell said of Rodriguez, who was hitless last week before he notched two singles Thursday. "He'll get it going again. I don't know if I was expecting him to hit .370."

Zito still in Oakland

No, the Oakland Athletics didn't trade Barry Zito before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, and there's an even slimmer chance he will be moved this month. But an A's source this week said it's still very possible that Zito will get moved during the offseason, and the Orioles will be one of the teams at the front of the line trying to get him.

As always for the A's, it comes down to picking priorities financially, and they know they simply can't afford to keep the Big Three of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Zito together forever.

Oakland has Zito under contract through next season, with an option for 2006, and by then, he'll be eligible for free agency. Zito's name surfaced before the deadline, when word spread that the A's were at least willing to listen to offers for his services.

A's general manager Billy Beane repeatedly said Zito wouldn't be traded and lived up to his word.

"I knew it could have happened," Zito said. "I was prepared if it did happen. I didn't give it more thought than I should have. I'm going to do my job every five days, and do my best at it, regardless of what team I play for.

"Obviously, the A's are where my heart is because it's where I came up. That would have been tough. It's good that it's behind us. Now, we can just get on with the last two months."

Big Unit's future

The Arizona Diamondbacks held onto Randy Johnson at the trade deadline, thwarting the best attempts to land him by the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.

So now what? There's very little chance Johnson will clear waivers and get traded this month, but look for the Diamondbacks to shop him this offseason. Arizona thinks it can make a quick turnaround in the weak National League West next season. Johnson isn't so sure.

"There's a lot of wishing and hoping, but what's the payroll going to be?" Johnson said. "I can spend $100 million and get an All-Star team in here, but do they have $100 million to spend? Is Richie [Sexson] coming back here next year? If [Steve Finley] goes and wins a World Series [in Los Angeles], will he want to come back here? Those are all questions nobody can answer."

Jottings

The Philadelphia Phillies may have saved manager Larry Bowa's job with their three-game sweep at San Diego this week, but this is still a situation worth following closely. The Phillies started 1-6 on their 13-game road trip that finishes this weekend in Los Angeles, and clubhouse dissension was widespread for a team with a $93 million payroll.

Atlanta Braves pitchers Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Jaret Wright combined to go 14-0 with a 1.87 ERA in July. That's a better month than the vaunted trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz ever posted together. That group went 11-3 with a 1.90 ERA in April 1997 and 11-2 with a 2.24 ERA in May 1996.

The Florida Marlins are considering moving left fielder Miguel Cabrera to first base by next spring, as they try to find the right long-term position for him, and manager Jack McKeon said Cabrera might see time at first yet this season. Cabrera came through the minors as a third baseman, but the Marlins moved him to the outfield last year, and now he prefers left field.

The week ahead

The National League wild-card race heats up this week, as the Chicago Cubs take a swing through the NL West. After finishing with the Giants this weekend, the Cubs return home to face the Padres and Dodgers.

With Chicago entering the weekend trailing the first-place St. Louis Cardinals by 9 1/2 games, this is an important stretch.

"That could be a blessing in disguise, where you are playing teams that you are trying to beat for the wild card," said Cubs manager Dusty Baker. "We'd like to get the lead in the wild card, and go into September where you could also have the division to compete for."

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

Still playing the feud

THEATER OF THE ABSURD

When the Boston Red Sox traded shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs last Saturday, it certainly didn't end the long-running feud between Garciaparra and his former team.

The Red Sox came out and said one reason they traded Garciaparra is because he had indicated to them that his tender right Achilles' tendon might force him back onto the disabled list. When Garciaparra downplayed the injury after the trade, saying all he needed was an occasional day off, the Red Sox said he had changed his story.

So Garciaparra told his side to The Boston Globe, and the whole thing remained a he said, he said controversy.

"It was just shocking," Garciaparra said. "What they are saying afterward kind of cracks me up. It's unfortunate, but it's not really a reflection of me."

TEAM RANKINGS

1. Yankees (2)

A testament to teamwork. And cold, hard cash.

2. Cardinals (1)

Tony La Russa could set this team on auto pilot but surely won't.

3. Dodgers (3)

For his next trick, young GM tries to re-invent the wheel.

4. Twins (4)

Homer Hankies (a.k.a. crying towels) at the ready.

5. Braves (7)

OK, so next year is the year that division title streak ends.

6. Rangers (8)

Fifteen starting pitchers this season, and counting.

7. Cubs (11)

Hoping Nomar Garciaparra's injury isn't proverbial Achilles' heel.

8. Athletics (6)

Could use a second baseman, but the owner is too cheap.

9. Red Sox (9)

Wild card or bust.

10. Angels (13)

Bartolo Colon refuses to be bigger bust than Sidney Ponson.

11. Padres (5)

Keep in mind, last August, Kevin Towers added Brian Giles.

12. Giants (10)

Funny, it seemed like they needed more relief help, not less.

13. White Sox (14)

First Carl Everett returns, then Roberto Alomar.

14. Phillies (15)

Larry Bowa wakes up and says, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough ... "

15. Indians (16)

Let's recap: This team is above .500, and the Orioles are .... ?

16. Marlins (12)

World champs barely in the wild-card hunt.

17. Astros (17)

Jimy Williams picks up the paper each day and belly laughs.

18. Reds (18)

Ken Griffey's next quest: 500 injuries.

19. Mets (19)

Cornered the market on mediocre starting pitchers.

20. Devil Rays (22)

The B.J. Upton era has begun.

21. Brewers (21)

Wisconsin happily turns attention to football.

22. Orioles (23)

Seattle's visit was like a doctor's house call.

23. Tigers (21)

Stop the madness, and trade Ugueth Urbina already.

24. Blue Jays (25)

Kerry Ligtenberg is latest former Oriole to flame out.

25. Pirates (24)

And no more Anna Benson to keep things interesting.

26. Rockies (26)

Charles Johnson rejects trade to Dodgers because life here is grand.

27. Expos (27)

Tony Batista still swinging straight up, and hitting balls over the fence.

28. Royals (29)

Still managed to give the White Sox fits this week.

29. Mariners (28)

Bret Boone could help someone (see Oakland) in a trade.

30. Diamondbacks (30)

Finally realizing his team has no chance, Luis Gonzalez consents to season-ending surgery.

(Last week's ranking in parentheses)

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