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  Sun, September 26, 2004


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Elliott on baseball column
Jays duo quick hit: Venezuela scouting pays off
By BOB ELLIOTT, TORONTO SUN

Bob Engle travelled to Azua in the Dominican Republic on Monday night when he heard the news.

Emilio Carrasquel was in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. He didn't know until the next day.

Engle and Carrasquel were the two scouts chiefly responsible for signing lefty Gustavo Chacin and catcher Guilermo Quiroz to Blue Jays contracts in 1998.

Chacin pitched seven-plus innings and allowed three runs on three hits in a 6-3 win over the Yankees that night, while Quiroz's magic fingers guided the rookie through New York's all-star lineup and contributed at the plate by hitting a single.

"Watching SportsCentre, I saw Quiroz and Chacin pitching, I didn't even know they'd been called up," Engle said from Panama. "I'd been out of the country."

While Engle knew first, Carrasquel, nephew of Chico Carrasquel, who played 10 years in the majors, mostly with the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, was closer to the eye of the storm.

"They didn't show the game on TV, so I didn't know until the next day," he said. "It was front-page news in Maracaibo, the first time a pitcher from Maracaibo ever threw to a catcher from Maracaibo and they beat the Yankees."

The baseball hotbed of Venezuela has produced 159 major leaguers (as a point of reference Canada has produced 221). Luis Aparicio, Wilson Alvarez, Omar Daal and the redoubtable Willie Canate are all from Maracaibo.

Quiroz is the 15th Maracaibo resident to make the majors and Chacin is the 16th from the city of 1.2 million.

The win for Chacin was his 19th of the season, counting 16 at double-A New Hampshire and two at triple-A Syracuse. He goes for his 20th on Wednesday in Baltimore. The other 22 Jays pitchers managed 62 wins in 149 games this season before Chacin arrived.

Scout Luis Feunmayo brought Chacin to a Jays academy in Carora, 95 kilometres west of Barquisimeto.

"He made an impression, knew how to pitch, located his fastball and had good mound presence," Engle said. "You felt he might be one of those lefties who could contribute at the major-league level."

Chacin was signed for a $50,000 US bonus and since 2000 has been stalled at double-A before taking off this season.

"It's nice to see him rewarded," Engle said. "Some left-handers take a while to develop and some left-handers never do."

While Chacin was a relatively easy sign -- the Jays found him and signed him --Quiroz was a different story.

He was well-known and had been showcased at camps in the United States and Venezuela, plus he was represented by agent Scott Boras. Jays gave Quiroz an $800,000 US bonus.

"We built up a good relationship with the family and we'd been watching him since he was 15," Engle said. "We brought him into Dunedin and finalized the deal in my office, with Boras on the line.

"You always root for kids you had something to do with and follow them, but you stay out of their way," said Engle, who, like Carrasquel, works for the Seattle Mariners.

"It's nice to see these young players come along. Young guys require a lot of time, patience and hard work."

LEFTY HAS THE RIGHT STUFF

MISSISSAUGA LEFTY A.J. Wideman had the lowest earned run average of the 106 Canadians playing in the minors this season -- 1.81 at single-A Vermont (Expos).

Kitchener's Ryan Braun led in saves with 23 for single-A Wilmington (Royals), while lefty Jeff Francis of North Delta, B.C., had the most wins (16) at double-A Tulsa and triple-A Colorado Springs (Rockies).

At the plate, Etobicoke catcher John Suomi led all Canucks with 100 RBIs at single-A Modesto; outfielder Ben Van Iderstine of Regina hit a combined .354 at single-A High Desert and double-A Huntsville (Brewers). First baseman Justin Morneau of New Westminster, B.C., topped the home-run chart with 22 for triple-A Rochester (Twins) and has 18 for AL Central champion Minnesota.

DOWN THE ROAD

Outfielder Yuber Rodriguez, 20, of Venezuela, was named the seventh-best prospect in the single-A Appalachian league by Baseball America. The Jays prospect hit .309 with seven homers, 53 RBI and a .396 on-base percentage for Pulaski ... Catcher Curtis Thigpen, whom the Jays selected in the second round this year, was ranked 11th in the New York-Penn league. Thigpen, 21, hit .301 with seven homers and 29 RBI for manager Dennis Holmberg at Auburn ... Vancouver catcher Mike Nickeas, drafted by the Texas Rangers, was rated the 19th best prospect in the rookie-class Pioneer League. Nickeas, 21, hit .288 with 10 homers and 55 RBIs with Spokane.

MOVIN' DOWN

Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Rheal Cormier and his wife, Lucienne, took their tests for U.S. citizenship on Thursday in Miami.

Cormier, who is 4-5 with a 3.76 ERA this season, hails from Moncton, N.B.

Last season, Cormier was 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA.

TWINS TRAMPLE RIVALS

THE MINNESOTA Twins clinched their third consecutive AL Central Division title on Monday, capping a 37-day rampage that left division rivals Cleveland and Chicago feeling broken and battered.

The Twins trampled their competition en route. On Aug. 15, they were one game ahead of the Indians and four games clear of the White Sox in first place.

From that date until it clinched the division, Minnesota was 25-9. The Chisox were 16-19 and Cleveland 9-23. During their 34-game run, the Twins played the Indians and White Sox a combined eight times and went 8-0, outscoring the opposition 58-13.

Pitching-wise, the Twins outclassed their foes. Since Aug. 15, Johan Santana, the ace of the staff has gone 7-0 with a 0.71 ERA, while Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia is 2-4 with a 5.24 ERA.

CHISOX TROUBLES

Once projected as a top free agent in the off-season, Magglio Ordonez of the White Sox has a murky future in the wake of a knee injury. Arthroscopic surgery did not solve his problems and genereal manager Ken Williams says there is no way to know when Ordonez will be completely healthy.

They appeared close to a contract extension around mid-season. Reportedly, it was a four-year deal worth $64 million US. But Ordonez declined because it contained too many deferrals and other clauses that protected the club.

Ordonez injured his knee in a collision with teammate Willie Harris on May 19.

JUST LOOKING

The Phillies likely will be unable to compete for outfielder Carlos Beltran, the crown jewel of this year's free-agent market. Steve Finley also has made it clear he prefers to remain in the west and J.D. Drew already has declined to come to Philadelphia after being drafted in the first round by the Phillies in 1997.

Still, there are some intriguing possibilities. If the Yankees get Beltran, that could make Kenny Lofton or Bernie Williams available. If the Braves are forced to lower payroll once again, they could part with Gold Glover Andruw Jones.

The Twins are also a team with payroll issues. It's possible they might not be able to retain outfielders Jacques Jones or Shannon Stewart.

EX-BLUE JAY OF THE WEEK: JOSH PHELPS, CLEVELAND INDIANS

DESIGNATED HITTER Josh Phelps was leading the Blue Jays in RBIs when he was claimed on waivers by the Cleveland Indians last month. A trade was worked out, although there would have been more leverage before the July 31 trade deadline.

Eric Crozier wound up with the Jays and Phelps headed to Cleveland.

This past Wednesday, Phelps walked in a five-run Cleveland seventh and also slammed a two-run homer to help the Indians edge the Detroit Tigers 7-6.

Since arriving in Cleveland, Phelps has only had six RBIs but is hitting .326 (14-for-43), which is enough to win ex-Jay of the week honours.