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  Sun, July 11, 2004


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Surprises of the season
Former doormats making their marks
By BOB ELLIOTT, TORONTO SUN

SURPRISES OF THE SEASON: FORMER DOORMATS MAKING THEIR MARK

THE TEXAS RANGERS said goodbye to Alex Rodriguez, and suddenly departed the American League West Division basement for first place.

The San Diego Padres moved into a new park and improved. The Cincinnati Reds penny-pinched together a rotation and are hanging around.

The Milwaukee Brewers earned their 41st win in their 75th game this season. A year ago they didn't pick up win No. 41 until their 101st game.

With a day remaining before the all-star break, 19 of 30 teams are sitting above .500.

What happened? Did Pete Rozelle sneak into the back rooms and create parity? Is the luxury tax helping?

For the Rangers, seemingly everything has gone right. Kenny Rogers leads the league in wins and has been a great model for the young pitchers to watch with his sinkerball. Michael Young has made the move to short almost seamlessly. Alfonso Soriano has been a good fit for this team. Hank Blalock has developed into perhaps the best third baseman in the AL. The bullpen has been solid with power arms Frankie Francisco, Carlos Almanzar and Francisco Cordero.

The Padres' pitching turned out to be much better than expected, especially in the bullpen, where San Diego developed a fairly effective duo of Scott Linebrink and Akinori Otsuka to get to closer Trevor Hoffman. Also, the team that for the past half-decade was among baseball's most wretched defensively suddenly is quite efficient afield.

A 22-10 start was the best in more than 20 years for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Individually, Adrian Beltre has done well. He is probably No. 1 on most lists of all-star snubs. The Dodgers have been waiting six years for him to reach his potential and it looks like he has. Entering play yesterday he was hitting .315 and had 22 home runs to go with 56 RBIs, and is a Gold Glove candidate. Deserving of mention are Eric Gagne's continued dominance and the blossoming of shortstop Cesar Izturis.

The Reds' starting rotation, suspect at the start of the season, put together a few quality starts before fading last month. Sean Casey is having a career year, while Ken Griffey and Barry Larkin are healthy.

For the Brewers, pitching has been much better than expected, keeping a team that is offensively challenged above .500. Righty Ben Sheets and closer Dan Kolb are all-stars, but even better stories are lefty Doug Davis and righty Victor Santos, who have pitched better than at any other point in their careers. First baseman Lyle Overbay would have been an all-star if not for a glut at that position in the NL, as he is among the league leaders in hitting and RBIs. Without the Richie Sexson trade, which gave them starters Craig Counsell, Junior Spivey, Overbay, Chad Moeller and lefty Chris Capuano, they would be on their way to their 12th consecutive losing season.

IS HALLADAY HEALTHY?

DID THE Blue Jays rush Roy Halladay back to the mound?

Halladay was scratched from his June 1 start against the Seattle Mariners because of soreness in his right shoulder. He returned to the rotation June 12 and went 5 2/3 innings in a win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"He's a great kid and he's battled back from a lot of adversity," one major league scout said after watching Halladay work Friday against the Anaheim Angels. "I don't know how healthy he is.

"His curve ball didn't have the same bite and for me his velocity was down. He's not where he was in 2003 or even earlier this season. I hope they took the proper amount of time with his injury."

Halladay allowed five runs on a career-high 12 hits -- all singles --in six innings on Friday as the Jays were edged 5-4 by the Angels.

In his 11 starts before his shoulder problems, Halladay allowed 104 base-runners (81 hits, 23 walks) in 78 innings, while allowing 31 earned runs and striking out 56. He compiled a 3.58 earned run average.

Since the injury, Halladay has made six starts, allowing 48 base-runners (38 hits, 10 walks) in 36 innings, giving up 20 runs and fanning 28. He has a 5.00 ERA since.

He has worked seven innings in just two of his previous six starts.

LOOKING

While the Florida Marlins are moving south, they plan to be buyers at the end of the month and a couple of Blue Jays --outfielder Frank Catalanotto and catcher Gregg Zaun -- have piqued their interest.

While dealing for Boston's Nomar Garciaparra might be prohibitive, the Marlins have scouts bearing down on other offensive options: Danny Bautista of the Arizona Diamondbacks, or Jeromy Burnitz of the Colorado Rockies.

A YEAR AGO

It hasn't been a good a year for Kansas City Royals reliever Mike MacDougal. At this time last season he was readying to pitch in the all-star game as a rookie. Today he's at triple-A Omaha, sidelined by a sore right elbow.

STILL PLUGGING

Ex-Jay David Wells, now of the San Diego Padres, is the 110th major-leaguer to make 400 career starts, joining Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Jamie Moyer and Mike Mussina as the only active pitchers to have reached that milestone.

ARIZONA GM ON HOT SEAT

NOW THAT the Arizona Diamondbacks have fired manager Bob Brenly, the spotlight of blame has shifted to their general manager, Joe Garagiola Jr.

Folks are angry that the team received damaged goods from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for pitcher Curt Schilling. Casey Fossum missed 6 1/2 weeks because of left shoulder problems and reliever Brandon Lyon has yet to pitch. Meanwhile, lefty reliever Shane Nance, who came in the Richie Sexson deal, also has spent time on the disabled list.

Asked about how much responsibility he took for the team's downfall, Garagiola said:

"It's hard to say. We all feel a sense of responsibility. All you can really do in this job is hopefully start with good people, people whose judgment and skill you trust.

"You put in the work, in terms of evaluating players, you try to collect the information you can and ultimately, you can't be afraid to make a decision."

BEST GAGNE NUMBER

Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne converted 84 consecutive saves before blowing one July 5 for the first time in 676 days. How about this: During that same time span, other NL relievers combined to blow 508 saves.

WINS NO. 1

Picking up their first wins in the minors: Newmarket's Jamaal Joseph with the Gulf Coast Marlins; High Park's Jon Lockwood with the Arizona League Mariners and Thorold's David Davidson with the Gulf Coast Pirates.

TURNAROUND

One year after losing 94 games, the Cleveland Indians had four players selected to the AL all-star team. Pitcher C.C. Sabathia, catcher Victor Martinez, second baseman Ron Belliard and left fielder Matt Lawton were selected, giving the Indians one more selection than the Boston Red Sox. It's the most all-star representatives for the Tribe since 2000, when Robbie Alomar, Chuck Finley, Travis Fryman and Manny Ramirez were selected.

EX-BLUE JAY OF THE WEEK

ONE DAY he is in centre, the next day he is at second base. Or left field. Or third base.

Ryan Freel of the Cincinnati Reds is called a utility player, but he plays nearly every day at some spot. He checks the lineup card every day, not just to see where he is playing, but because he remains insecure enough to have to check to see if he is playing anywhere.

Being a defensive rover doesn't affect his hitting. He is on a career best nine-game hitting streak (16-35, .457). In the past 25 games he has hit .359, but will miss the Reds' four games in Milwaukee after injuring his right knee going after a foul ball in St. Louis.

In 1998, then Jays manager Tim Johnson predicted this kind of career for the 1995 10th-round pick and Freel made his debut with the Jays in 2001. In 2002 he signed with Tampa Bay and joined the Reds this season.