Inside Baseball

August 26, 2001

Better Than Ever
While others pursue the home run record, Sammy Sosa is having his
finest season

As the Cubs relaxed in the visitors' clubhouse at Bank One
Ballpark before their game against the Diamondbacks last
Saturday, the final inning of the Braves' 3-1 win over the Giants
blared from the television. Barry Bonds had hit his 54th home run
in the game, and after the final out the highlights concentrated
more on Bonds's blast than Atlanta's victory. Sammy Sosa, in
front of his locker, occasionally glanced at the TV as he changed
into his uniform, for once following the hype of a home run race
from afar. "It's good to see somebody else in that position," he
said.

If he's not careful, Sosa may find himself back in that
spotlight. As the baseball world has tracked the home run
assaults by Bonds and Arizona's Luis Gonzalez (the latter hit his
46th last Saturday in a 5-3 win over Chicago), Sosa has quietly
put together the most impressive season of what is rapidly
becoming a surefire Hall of Fame career. Through Sunday, Sosa was
third in the National League with 44 homers--he joined the fringes
of the Bonds-Gonzalez race with a nine-homer binge in a 14-game
span--and had a major-league-leading 118 RBIs. This is his seventh
straight 35-homer, 100-RBI season. Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth are
the only other players to have had that many in a row, and Sosa
seemed certain to join Ruth and Mark McGwire as the only players
with four 50-homer seasons.

Sosa was also second in the league in runs (102), had a .314
batting average and was on his way to career bests in walks (he
had 87, four fewer than the high he set last season), on-base
percentage (.427, better than his .406 mark in 2000) and slugging
percentage (.712, well above his .647 in 1998). With 122
strikeouts, Sosa was also on pace for his lowest whiff total in
five seasons. Remarkably, three years after hitting 66 home runs,
Sosa, at age 32, is a better, more complete hitter than ever. "I
always thought hitters reach their prime around age 30--they have
their talent and their brain gets involved, and they peak," says
Jeff Pentland, the Cubs' hitting coach since 1997. "That's where
Sammy is now."

Sosa's surge is particularly impressive considering his lack of
support in the Chicago lineup, especially before the July 27
acquisition of first baseman Fred McGriff to hit cleanup behind
him. Sosa has almost singlehandedly kept the Cubs' offense afloat
and Chicago in contention. He had 28 intentional walks through
Sunday, the most in the majors, and a startling 70 more RBIs than
the next most productive Cub, infielder Ron Coomer. "At times
this year he has told me he's gone 10 days without seeing a good
pitch to hit," says Pentland. "But Sammy can go off the plate
when he has to, so he still gets his base hits."

The patience to lay off much of the slop he sees from pitchers is
a new aspect of Sosa's approach at the plate, as is a more
streamlined swing. In his pregame cage work Sosa has concentrated
on taking a shorter, less violent hack. The result: a better
chance of making contact and thus, because of his enormous
strength, more chances for extra-base hits. "People began to
think he was only trying to hit home runs because he swung so
hard," says Pentland. "Sammy doesn't swing nearly as hard as he
used to. He's so strong he doesn't need to."

Sosa's continued development at the plate is enhanced by his
happy state of mind. Having signed a four-year, $72 million deal
in March, he has put last year's highly publicized sulking over
his contract behind him. He has also been helped by a trait that
sets him apart from many other sluggers: durability. He started
all but two of Chicago's first 122 games. "I knew he was a good
hitter, but the amazing thing is how hard he plays every day,"
says Coomer, who signed with the Cubs last winter.

"That's how he played when I managed against him, and that's the
player I thought he could be again," says Cubs manager Don
Baylor, who bickered with Sosa last season. "He's back to being
the five-tool guy he was before."

Boston Sacks Williams
A Desperate Change of Sox

The Red Sox' firing of manager Jimy Williams last week was like
the death of an elderly and infirm relative: You could see it
coming, but it was still shocking when it finally happened.
Williams had a frosty relationship with Boston general manager
Dan Duquette, didn't have a contract for 2002 and was widely
expected to leave after this season. He also had irked several
Red Sox veterans with his lineup juggling and lack of
communication in the clubhouse. Still, injury-ravaged Boston was
12 games over .500 and in the thick of the playoff race (five
games behind the Yankees in the American League East and two back
of Oakland in the wild-card battle) when Williams got his pink
slip. Not since 1988, when George Steinbrenner fired Billy
Martin, has a manager with such a good record been fired in
midseason.

Though Boston was in a mini slump when Williams was dismissed--the
Red Sox had lost six of seven when Duquette made his decision--it
was hardly a nosedive against weak sisters. Among those losses,
three were to the A's and two were to the Mariners. Little
wonder, then, that many observers criticized the move. "A lot of
people in baseball want to see Boston miss the playoffs, because
the firing was a disgrace," says one AL scout. "Williams held the
Red Sox together with wire and paper clips, but they were waiting
for an excuse to get rid of him."

While Williams should have no trouble landing on his feet, the
same can't be said of Boston. For one thing, choosing Joe
Kerrigan to replace Williams is risky. Kerrigan, who was given a
two-year contract after former Expos skipper Felipe Alou turned
down the job, was widely respected as the Red Sox' pitching coach
during the past five seasons for his intelligence, fanatical
preparation and hands-on approach, but he had never managed at
any level. Asking him to learn the job amid a pennant race may be
a mistake. Plus, if history is any indication, pitching coaches
don't make good managers. Larry Rothschild (fired by the Devil
Rays in April), Ray Miller (a .472 winning percentage over two
years with the Twins and two with the Orioles) and Marcel
Lachemann (a 160-170 record with the Angels from 1994 to '96) are
only three examples of highly regarded pitching coaches who
stumbled when put in charge.

Of course, it may not matter who's making the lineup. The
overachieving Red Sox may finally have run out of gas after
coping for long stretches with injuries that kept shortstop Nomar
Garciaparra, pitcher Pedro Martinez and centerfielder Carl
Everett out of action. The key to their playoff push likely rests
on the return of Martinez, who went down in June with an inflamed
right rotator cuff. Martinez was set to start against the Rangers
this weekend. If he isn't in peak form in the season's final
month, the occupant of the manager's office will make little
difference to Boston.

Race(s) to the Finish
Who Will Draw The Wild Card?

When the wild card was introduced seven years ago in hopes that
it would add drama to the late stages of the season, the races
that are shaping up in both leagues this year were exactly what
the owners had in mind. With roughly a quarter of the schedule to
go as of Sunday, only the Mariners were a lock for an American
League playoff spot, and six other teams--the Yankees, A's,
Indians, Red Sox, Angels and Twins--were all within six games of a
postseason berth. Things were nuttier in the National League, in
which eight teams, or half the league, were bunched within 5 1/2
games of one another. The Diamondbacks, Astros, Giants, Braves,
Cubs, Cardinals, Phillies and Dodgers all had a realistic shot of
playing in October.

Here are some keys to handicapping what promises to be an
exhilarating stretch run:

--Atlanta, which was a game ahead of Philadelphia in the NL East
through Sunday, will play 17 of its final 26 games on the road.
Stunningly, that schedule might aid the Braves: They had the
second best road record (39-25) in the league.

--If the Red Sox stay in the race, they can look forward to a
cushy schedule in the season's final three weeks. Boston's last
19 games are against the Devil Rays, the Orioles and the Tigers.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox' main wild-card competition, the A's,
face a rockier road. Thirteen of Oakland's final 16 games are
against the Mariners and the resurgent Angels.

--Each of the three leading NL MVP candidates--the Giants' Barry
Bonds, the Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez and the Cubs' Sammy
Sosa--will be counted on to carry his team. The bad news is that
September hasn't been a kind month for any of them. Sosa's
career .252 average in September is his lowest of any month;
Gonzalez's .275 average is his second lowest. Bonds's September
average is a respectable .291, but his home run rate (one every
15.3 at bats) is his second lowest.

--The unbalanced schedule, with its emphasis on intradivision
games in the final month, is great for teams fighting for
division titles. It's less helpful to teams chasing a wild-card
bid. For example, the A's won't see the Red Sox or the Twins, two
of their wild-card rivals, again this year. Among teams not
currently leading their division, only the Cardinals and the
Dodgers and the Angels and the Twins will meet in September.

Ripken Redux
Iron Man's Last Hurrah

On Aug. 15 the Orioles held a turn-back-the-clock promotion at
Camden Yards. Baltimore wore the traffic-cone-orange jerseys it
sported during the 1970s, the P.A. system blasted classic rock
and disco, and players from the Orioles teams that won the World
Series in '70 and '79 were honored. It was fitting that Cal
Ripken, who was drafted by Baltimore a year before the latter
season, hit a game-winning home run in the sixth inning. "There
were some pretty good flashback moments tonight," Ripken, 40,
said after the game.

The past two months have been one long flashback to better times
for Ripken. On June 20, the day after he announced he would
retire at the end of this season, Ripken's batting average was
.207. That night he went 1 for 5 to launch a 15-game hitting
streak, and since then he had hit safely in 38 of the 41 games he
had played through Sunday. His average in that stretch was .353,
with eight homers and 32 RBIs. Overall his average was up to
.275, and he was on his way to his best totals in both homers
(12) and RBIs (57) since 1996, when he went deep 26 times and
drove in 102 runs. "It wasn't a coincidence that I started
hitting better after deciding [to retire]," Ripken says. "After I
made the decision, things became a little bit clearer for me. I
started to relax."

It also helped that the erstwhile Iron Man finally felt fully
recovered from the cracked rib he'd suffered in spring training.
The hot streak by Ripken, a notoriously streaky hitter throughout
his career, forced manager Mike Hargrove to reconsider the way he
had been using Ripken. Before his retirement announcement Ripken
was in the unaccustomed role of part-time player (he appeared in
only 49 of the Orioles' first 69 games). Through Sunday he had
sat out only five of the previous 30. To be sure, the additional
playing time was in part the result of fans' desire to see him on
his farewell tour through the American League. Still, if only for
a few months as his career winds down, Ripken is again the most
dangerous hitter in the Orioles' lineup. Says Hargrove, "I wish
he had announced his retirement about two months earlier."

On Deck
Back as a D-back

Aug. 26, Diamondbacks at Phillies Curt Schilling has been
waiting since 1993 to pitch another game with playoff
implications in Philadelphia. Now, as a Diamondback, he'll get
the chance in a series that may be a preview of October action.
Among the subplots: What reception will Schilling, who started
four games for Philadelphia in the '93 postseason, get from
Phillies fans in his first start at the Vet since Philadelphia
traded him to Arizona last July? Will Schilling, who led the
major leagues with 18 victories through Sunday and was scheduled
for one start before this one, nail down his first 20-win season
on familiar turf?

For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN The durable Sosa has used all five tools to almost single-handedly keep the Cubs' playoff hopes alive. COLOR PHOTO: JIM BOURG/REUTERS New skipper Kerrigan (rear) knows the Red Sox' success hinges on Martinez's comeback.

enemy Lines

Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week:

The National League West race is going to be fun to watch. The
Giants are probably the most balanced team, but their starting
pitching, with no aces, isn't built for the postseason. The
Diamondbacks aren't that good, but Randy Johnson and Curt
Schilling scare people in a short playoff series....

I think the Indians will win the American League Central, but
they'll have a hard time winning in the playoffs. Their
rotation, especially lefthander Chuck Finley, will have to be
clicking on all cylinders for them to have a chance. Otherwise,
Cleveland will have to outslug people, and Kenny Lofton, Omar
Vizquel and Roberto Alomar will have to get on base all the time
the way they did five years ago....

Manager Larry Bowa's antics are wearing thin on the Phillies,
especially on the pitchers. Every time one of them gives up a
hit, Bowa throws up his hands, as if he's saying, What's wrong
with this guy? ...

The White Sox will be a club to watch next season because they
have good young pitchers who are getting their feet wet this
year. Lefthander Mark Buehrle is the real thing, righthander
Keith Foulke is a fine closer, and Gary Glover has a good right
arm....

The sun might shine on the Devil Rays some day. Brent Abernathy
looks good at second base and is hitting a ton [.328 in August,
through Sunday], and Toby Hall looks like a solid young catcher
who will hit and hit for power. He needs work receiving and
blocking the ball, but he has excellent arm strength.

in the Box

BLUE JAYS 11, RANGERS 3
Aug. 17

The single is the easiest element to come by for a player trying
to hit for the cycle, especially a 5'9" utility infielder with
all of 15 home runs and 10 triples in his eight-year career.
However, the Blue Jays' Jeff Frye had to resort to a bit of
loafing to get his name in the record books. Having tripled in
the second inning, doubled in the fifth and homered in the sixth,
Frye came up with one out in the seventh and smacked a line drive
into right centerfield. The ball rolled to the wall as Homer
Bush, the runner on first base, scored easily. Frye ambled into
second with an easy double, right?

Wrong. With Toronto cruising to a blowout victory--Bush's run made
the score 11-3--Frye ran well past first base but returned to the
bag, giving himself a single to become only the second Blue Jay
to hit for the cycle. (Kelly Gruber was the first, in 1989.)
"When he got to first base, he asked me what he should do," said
first base coach Garth Iorg. "I told him, 'Stay right here.'"

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