Who'da Thunk It? Ichiro who? Rocker went where? A look at some of the most amazing developments in a stunning summer

July 15, 2001

Pitchers are cool again

Scoring was down from 10.53 runs per game in the first half of
2000 to 9.72 runs at the All-Star break this year, home runs
decreased from 2.56 per game to 2.29, the major leagues' overall
batting average fell from .272 to .265, and the number of walks
tumbled from 7.66 per game to 6.65. Strikeouts, meanwhile, were
up from 13.07 per game to 13.38. If the trend holds, hitters will
have their lowest cumulative average since 1993 (when it was also
.265), will walk at the lowest rate since '92 (6.50 per game) and
whiff at the highest rate ever.

What gives? The enlarged strike zone has aided the resurgence of
pitching, though the consensus lately is that the change in the
zone hasn't been all that dramatic and hasn't been called
consistently by umpires. The more persuasive explanation is that
there are more good pitchers, especially young ones, than in
recent years. The bumper crop of newcomers is led by the Twins'
Joe Mays (age 25, 11-5, 3.02 ERA), the Astros' Wade Miller (24,
11-3, 3.79), the Brewers' Ben Sheets (22, 10-5, 3.59), and the
Athletics' Tim Hudson (26, 9-5, 3.02) and Mark Mulder (23, 9-6,
3.77). In addition, six other pitchers who are 26 or younger are
on track to win at least 15 games. If all these young pitchers
reach that victory total, it would be the largest such group to
do so since 1993.

Albert Pujols is the best young hitter in the National League

A 21-year-old unknown forced into the Opening Day lineup due to
Cardinals injuries and the slow recovery of Mark McGwire (knee
surgery), Pujols is having one of the most productive rookie
seasons ever. Ranked in the top 14 in each of the Triple Crown
categories (.323, 21 home runs, 66 RBIs), he's within reach of
the National League rookie mark of 38 homers, held by Wally
Berger and Frank Robinson, and has amazed teammates and opponents
with his poise at the plate. Oh, yeah, he has also played four
positions--first base, third base, leftfield and rightfield.

Alfonso Soriano will not win the American League Rookie of the
Year award

Ichiro Suzuki (right), whose jump from the Japanese league to the
majors has been a bigger hit than even the Mariners ever dreamed
it could be, has emerged as a lock for the award over Soriano,
the Yankees' second baseman and a strong preseason favorite. The
27-year-old Ichiro leads the American League in hits (134) and
runs (76), is tied for first in steals (28) and tied for second
in batting average (.347). The top All-Star vote-getter will be
chasing bigger game in the second half: George Sisler's
81-year-old record of 257 hits in a season. Even if he falls
short of that mark, Ichiro has a good chance to become the first
player with more than 240 hits since 1930.

It turns out that with the unbalanced schedule, an ill-timed
slump can wreck a team's season

Ask the A's, whose chance of repeating as American League West
champs was destroyed by a 2-10 April skid against division
opponents. The Mariners, who won 15 of their 19 divisional games
in the first month, helped bury Oakland by taking five of six
from the A's. Or ask the White Sox, who lost 11 of 13 to the
Twins in the first half. Little wonder that Chicago, 39-33
against all other opponents combined, trailed AL Central-leading
Minnesota by 13 games.

There's reason to watch the Orioles

Thanks to a collection of promising young arms, Baltimore (40-47)
isn't as bad as many thought it would be. In fact, the starters
have the fifth-best ERA (4.24) among American League rotations.
Righthander Josh Towers, 24, who moves the ball around the strike
zone like Greg Maddux, is 6-3 with a 2.22 ERA since being called
up on April 28; righthander Jason Johnson, 27, has rebounded from
a horrendous 2000 (1-10, 7.02) and is ranked in the top 10 in ERA
(3.22) and opponents' batting average (.243); and righthander
Sidney Ponson, 24, is 5-2 with a 3.22 ERA after getting shelled
in two of his first three starts.

Coors Field batters can be tamed

Rockies lefthander Denny Neagle allowed more than three earned
runs only once in nine first-half starts at home and was 4-0 with
a 4.14 ERA at Coors. Rotation mate Mike Hampton won his first
five decisions at Coors before losing three straight games.

Tony Muser still manages the Royals

Expected to finish above .500 and perhaps even contend for the
American League wild card this year, Kansas City (34-53) is
skidding toward its seventh straight losing season and is on pace
to break the franchise record for losses (97). Muser, who has a
278-372 record since taking over midway through the 1997 season,
owns the lowest winning percentage (.428) among active managers
who have more than a year's service. Still, general manager
Allard Baird refuses to blame his skipper for the train wreck and
insists that Muser's job is safe.

There's life in these old legs

Not that Barry Bonds (left), who turns 37 on July 24, was washed
up, but such a power surge at his age? Please. With 39 homers
he's on his way to shattering his career high of 49, which he hit
last year. Hank Aaron is the only other player with 500 home runs
to hit his season best, 47, at such an advanced age (37). Bonds
also appears a lock to become the oldest player ever to hit 50 in
a season.

Bonds isn't the only graybeard with a spring in his step. Devil
Rays first baseman Fred McGriff, 37, was hitting a career-high
.330 and on track to reach 30 homers for only the second time
since 1994. For three years outfielder Ruben Sierra, 35, had
bounced around the minors and the Mexican League, but since the
Rangers called him up in May, he has hit .313 and cracked 13
homers in 147 at bats. Orioles infielder-DH Jeff Conine, 35, who
hasn't hit more than 17 homers or driven in more than 75 runs
since 1996, was batting .314 with nine home runs, 48 RBIs and a
career-best .388 on-base percentage.

Someone took John Rocker off the Braves' hands

Namely, the Indians, whose general manager, John Hart, tried for
more than a year to obtain the embattled lefthanded closer from
Atlanta. Hart finally got Rocker (right) on June 22 in a swap of
relievers--Atlanta got Steve Karsay and Steve Reed--that
strengthened both clubs' bullpens.

The Devil Rays are even worse than we thought

No team has lost 110 games in a season since the expansion Expos
and Padres both did in 1969. Tampa Bay, which won only 27 of its
first 88 games, has an excellent shot at losing at least that
many. Don't be surprised if the Devil Rays' second half is even
uglier than the first after the inevitable dumping starts and
veterans like righthander Albie Lopez, outfielder Greg Vaughn
and, perhaps, Fred McGriff are dealt. Tampa Bay might even
challenge the benchmark for futility set by the '62 Mets: 120
losses.

A fearless look at what's in store for the second half of the
season

--NO DEALS. Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and the rest of the A's
will stay put. That's because Oakland will claw back into the
wild-card race. Since May 1 the A's have had the league's lowest
ERA and fourth-best record. A total of 10 second-half games
against the Indians and the Red Sox, both wild-card contenders,
will give Oakland an opportunity to make up ground.

--PACKING THEIR BAGS. Rockies righthander Pedro Astacio, Blue Jays
outfielder Jose Cruz Jr., Royals outfielder Jermaine Dye, Tigers
closer Todd Jones, Devil Rays outfielder Greg Vaughn, and Pirates
outfielder John Vander Wal and closer Mike Williams will all
likely be traded before the July 31 deadline. Astacio could wind
up with the Red Sox, Dye with the Cubs and Jones with the
Diamondbacks.

--ACE IN A HOLE. Pedro Martinez will win only 12 games, his lowest
total since the strike-shortened season of 1994. An inflamed
rotator cuff will keep him on the shelf until late July or early
August. Even so, the gritty Red Sox will remain in the playoff
race through the season's final, frantic week.

--BROWNOUT BY THE BAY. For a while it appeared he would hit 70
home runs by August, but Barry Bonds will lose power as the
season drags on.

--THE TWINS HANG ON. It'll be close, but Minnesota will edge
Cleveland for the American League Central title. The race comes
down to starting pitching--the Twins have enough; the Indians do
not.

--THEIR TIME HAS COME. Three years ago Diamondbacks leftfielder
Luis Gonzalez was a .267 hitter who had never driven in as many
as 80 runs in a season. This year, with a .355 average, 35 homers
and 86 RBIs, he's on his way to the National League MVP award. In
the American League, Manny Ramirez will also win his first MVP
award, even if Boston doesn't make the playoffs.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER (ICHIRO) COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN (BONDS) COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE (ROCKER)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)