Led by a makeshift rotation, the Astros quickly climbed into NL
When he was first called up to the Astros, in June, 23-year-old
righthander Kirk Saarloos was scared. A week earlier he was an
obscure Double A junkball pitcher with one full season as a pro.
Suddenly he was walking into a clubhouse filled with
All-Stars--Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Billy Wagner--he had grown
up idolizing. "It was definitely intimidating," says Saarloos.
"And clearly I tried too hard."
In three starts Saarloos was terrible, allowing 17 earned runs
in 8 2/3 innings. After being shelled for five runs in two
innings against the Rangers on June 29, Houston sent Saarloos
(and his 17.65 ERA) to Triple A New Orleans, where he thought
he'd spend the rest of the season. "You don't pitch that badly,"
he says, "and expect another chance in the near future."
Yet after going 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in four appearances with the
Zephyrs, Saarloos was summoned back to Houston on July 20, and at
week's end he had won five straight starts in playing a key part
in the Astros' surprising revival. Through Sunday Houston was
three games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central
and five games in back of the Dodgers in the wild-card race.
As recently as July 26, Houston was a .500 team and trailed St.
Louis by seven games, and most of the blame for that lackluster
performance was leveled at the starting rotation, even though the
Astros' lineup was equally disappointing. (Despite playing in
hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park, Houston, through Sunday, was
tied for eighth in the league in home runs, with 116.) While
righthander Roy Oswalt (13-6, 3.18 ERA) has turned into an ace,
the four other pitchers projected in spring training as starters
(Shane Reynolds, Wade Miller, Carlos Hernandez and Dave Mlicki)
have spent varying amounts of time on the DL. "Honestly, I
thought that could kill us," says outfielder Daryle Ward. "How
many teams can survive without their frontline guys?"
From June 27 through Sunday, however, Houston was the
second-hottest team in the majors, putting together a 27-13 run
that, coupled with the Cardinals' recent 3-8 slump, thrust the
Astros into the division race. The primary reason for the
turnaround was a revitalized rotation. Miller recovered from a
pinched nerve in his neck and had a 9-3 record with a 4.20 ERA.
The two big surprises, though, were Saarloos (5-0, 2.87 ERA in
his second stint in the big leagues) and journeyman righthander
Pete Munro (2-2, 3.51 ERA in six starts), neither of whom began
the year on Houston's 40-man roster.
Saarloos has stymied opposing hitters with three pitches--sinker,
slider, changeup--none of which approach 90 mph but all of which
break unpredictably. "The thing I'm doing now is keeping guys off
balance," he says. "I realize that I'm not going to blow them
away. I just have to keep hitters unsure of what's coming."
Against Atlanta last Saturday, his worst outing since being
called back, Saarloos picked up the win despite allowing five
earned runs in 5 2/3 innings. Considering that he figured to be
pitching for the Zephyrs, Saarloos wasn't complaining. "If I get
pounded and we win, that's fine with me," he says. "I'm a rookie
who's not supposed to be here. I'll just keep my mouth shut and
pitch. That's the best I can do."
Texas's Kevin Mench
Rangers Rookie Using His Head
One might assume that Kevin Mench's success this season might
have given the Rangers rookie outfielder a big head, but that's
not the case. His skull has always been huge. According to the
New Era cap company, which outfits all major league teams,
Mench's size 8 noggin is one of the largest in the majors.
(Padres manager Bruce Bochy is also a size 8.) That might explain
why Mench, 24, is more likely to be addressed as Shrek in the
Texas clubhouse than by his given name. Says Rangers third
baseman Herbert Perry, "You have to wonder how he keeps from
That has not been a problem for Mench, who is one of the leading
contenders in the AL rookie of the year race. At week's end,
despite having played in only 70 games, he was hitting .278 with
14 home runs, tied for second among all rookies. His 46 RBIs was
"Kevin has shown he can hit at the major league level," says
Rangers manager Jerry Narron. "He's very confident and a quick
learner. He has a real head for the game."
Slammin' Sammy Sosa
Angry Cubs Star Goes Ballistic
It hasn't been a particularly enjoyable year for slugger Sammy
Sosa, who this season has complained about the number of day
games at Wrigley Field and the safety of the team's charter plane
and has called Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland "untouchable"
despite the club's .242 batting average, second worst in the
majors at week's end. Forgive Sosa for being frustrated. His
team, expected to be a wild-card contender, was 50-65 through
Sunday and 12 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the National
If the Cubs still have visions of making a run at the postseason,
here's an idea: Keep Sosa angry. Last Saturday, only hours after
saying that he was sick of "the same [garbage] all the time" from
the Cubs and threatening to exercise his option to become a free
agent after the 2003 season, Sosa hit three three-run homers
before taking himself out of the game in the sixth inning of a
15-1 win over the Rockies at Coors Field. "Respect is part of
this game. I had a pretty good day, and we were winning 15-1. I
spoke to my skipper and said, 'I've had enough,'" Sosa said of
his early exit.
On Sunday he continued his hot streak with a grand slam and an
RBI double in a 12-9 victory. Sosa finished the weekend with 14
RBIs, setting an NL record for RBIs in consecutive games.
Next Up in the Week Ahead
SPEAKING OF HITTING How do you say "These Americans aren't so
hot" in Japanese? The Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and Alfonso Soriano
of the Yankees know, and they will have a chance to compare notes
when the two first-place teams meet for a three-game series at
Safeco Field starting on Friday. Suzuki, who led the American
League with a .344 average through Sunday, and Soriano (29
homers) both started their pro careers in the Japanese leagues.
THROAT CLEARING Philadelphia boo birds will be out in force this
weekend when third baseman Scott Rolen returns for the first time
since being traded to the Cardinals on July 29. Rolen, who was
hitting .209 in 12 games with St. Louis, won't be surprised by
the reception. He was booed plenty while with the Phillies.
Although the players' association did not set a strike date on
Monday, the possibility of a walkout still existed. The 1994
strike not only led to the first cancellation of a World Series
but also robbed several players and teams who were on track for
major achievements. Here's a look at who suffered the most in '94
and which players and teams could be similarly shortchanged, such
as the first-place Twins (above), if this season is not
concluded. --David Sabino
The Reds led the Astros by a half game in the National League
Central, while in the American League West all four teams were
bunched within 5 1/2 games of the top.
The Cardinals, Reds and Astros were within three games of each
other in the NL Central through Sunday, while only four games
separated the Mariners, Angels and Athletics in the AL West.
The Expos, led by Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez and Larry
Walker, had baseball's best record (74-40) and a six-game lead
in the NL East, heading for their first playoff series since
In a year in which they were supposed to be contracted, the
Twins (70-49) had a 13-game lead in the AL Central and were a
lock to make their first postseason appearance since 1991.
The Giants' Matt Williams had 43 home runs in 115 games, the
same number Roger Maris had through 115 games in 1961.
With 41 saves, Braves closer John Smoltz was on pace to tie the
major league record of 57, set by Bobby Thigpen of the White
Sox in 1990.
The Padres' Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 and had a chance to
become the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941.
Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano had 29 home runs and 31
stolen bases, and was on track to become the fourth 40-40
Cal Ripken Jr. lost 68 games in his quest to break Lou Gehrig's
Iron Man record.
Barry Bonds had 600 home runs and would be held up in his
pursuit of Hank Aaron's career mark.