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Pitchers ahead of curve

You probably don't need to tell Charlie Manuel, Chipper Jones or Aramis Ramirez, but this is the Year of the Pitcher.

Entering the weekend, there were 24 starters qualifying for the ERA title with earned-run averages lower than 3.00. There were 11 last season, four in 2008 and only one — Jake Peavy — in 2007.

But the performances of pitchers is off the charts this season. Ubaldo Jimenez (1.15), Cardinals rookie Jaime Garcia (1.59) and Josh Johnson (1.86) all had sub-2.00 ERAs after their first 13 or 14 starts.

Another eight starters had ERAs below 2.50, including the unlikely Doug Fister of the Mariners. The sub-3.00 crowd includes other surprises, such as Livan Hernandez, who practically had to beg the Nationals to sign him; Clayton Richard, whom the White Sox traded for Peavy; Jason Vargas of the Mariners and the Cubs' post-surgery Ted Lilly.

Sixteen of the 24 sub-3.00 starters are in the National League, which is sure to cause Manuel and the MLB office some anxious moments when they try to fill out the roster for the All-Star Game.

Commissioner Bud Selig has increased the size of teams to 34 players, including 13 pitchers. More than 13 will merit recognition, however.

Selig added a rule that disqualifies anyone who pitches on Sunday before the Tuesday night game from working in the game. Those pitchers will be invited to the game and acknowledged as All-Stars, but replacements will be named to take part in the game.

Managers love to take relief pitchers, as they're used to working in one-inning shifts. Both teams had five relievers in uniform last year, so that means up to 10 starters could be selected (depending on how many have Sunday starts).

This year's pitching dominance continues the recent trend. Earned-run averages have been dropping steadily in both leagues since 2007, at least in part because of Major League Baseball testing for performance enhancing drugs. The National League had a 4.12 ERA entering the weekend, which would be the lowest since 1993 if it holds up.

No team is feeling the impact of this wave of good pitching more than Manuel's Phillies. They led the NL with 5.1 runs per game in 2009 but entered the weekend averaging 4.5, which ranked 11th.

The run-scoring problems seemingly came out of nowhere a month ago. They averaged 2.9 runs during an 8-17 stretch from May 18 through Tuesday before winning two in a row at Yankee Stadium.

Manuel was tired of talking about his slumping hitters. Could it be the pitching?

"Let me tell you something," Manuel said. "I've been around this game all my life. You say, 'How can you explain it?' When I was in Japan, they used to ask me. Why? Why? Why? Well, I don't know. That's baseball, I guess. If I could explain that and everything, we'd score runs every inning. Why? Why? Why?"

That time again: the Mariners' Cliff Lee is ready for the phone to ring. He knows it's a fait accompli that he will be traded for the third time in a year, going from the last-place Mariners to a contender for another stretch run.

He wouldn't have minded staying, but the Mariners (like the Indians and Phillies before them) never got serious about a contract that would extend beyond 2010.

"I don't think anyone expected us to play the way we have," said Lee, who improved to 5-3 with a 2.55 ERA in 10 starts following his six-hit shutout of the Reds on Friday.

When Lee does sign a contract, it's sure to include a no-trade clause. He could be with five teams in 19 months if he is traded to a team other than the Phillies or Indians and then signs a free-agent deal with yet another team.

Unbroken chain: Some were worried baseball would be without a knuckleballer after Tim Wakefield. But journeyman R.A. Dickey is 5-0 in six starts since joining the Mets in mid-May.

"I'm happy for him," said Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who was paid a visit by Dickey a few years ago.

Dickey's hardly a newcomer. He's 35 and has spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues.

The last word: "I told him, 'Sometimes the party you're going to isn't as good as the party you left.'" — Tigers manager Jim Leyland on his advice to Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, who turned down a chance to coach the Cavaliers.

Phil Rogers covers baseball for the Chicago Tribune.

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