BREW HA HA
Healthy Milwaukee can contend in the injury-ravaged National
You have to understand that first baseman Sean Berry is new to
Milwaukee. Generally talk like his--of the Brewers' possibly
winning the National League Central--would be dismissed as the
crazy babble of a fresh-start veteran on a needy club. The Brew
Crew, playoff-bound? Whatever, Biff.
Berry, however, sees an opening--a ray of light for the
perennial bottom feeders who finished 74-88 last season. It has
less to do with skill than with the carnage that has befallen
Milwaukee's division rivals. "What's happened this spring is
very sad," he says. "I don't like watching guys get hurt, none
of us do. But these types of twists and turns really open things
Cubs righthanded flamethrower Kerry Wood is out for the year
with a torn ligament in his right elbow. The Cardinals'
20-game-winner-in-waiting, righthander Matt Morris, is gone with
the same injury. Lefthander Denny Neagle, potentially the Reds'
best starter since Jose Rijo, has suffered weakness in his
pitching shoulder and will open the season on the 15-day
disabled list. Going into spring training the Cubs, Cardinals
and Reds were considered playoff contenders--if not to outgun
Houston in the Central, then at least to challenge for the wild
"There are always good outfielders available and usually a spare
infielder who can fill in," says lefthander Terry Mulholland,
who will step into the Cubs' rotation. "But replacing an ace is
a huge challenge. It cripples you."
The Cardinals' rotation now consists of a quintet that combined
for 33 wins last year. The Cubs' rotation is anchored by
veterans Kevin Tapani, Steve Trachsel, Mulholland and Scott
Sanders, but none is good enough to lift a team that relied on
the 21-year-old Wood not only for victories but also for
adrenaline. "A huge part of winning is feeling you can win,"
says Milwaukee manager Phil Garner. "When you lose a Kerry Wood,
you have to lose a little of that feeling."
The Pirates were not exempt from the devastation. They lost a
starting pitcher the hard way: Righty Jose Silva was struck in
the face by a line drive last week, and he will open the season
on the DL. Although none of the Astros' arms have dropped off,
leftfielder Moises Alou, Houston's most productive hitter, is
out for the year with a torn ligament in his left knee.
The Central's only safe haven seems to be Milwaukee. Suddenly
the Scott Karl-Steve Woodard-Bill Pulsipher starting trio
doesn't look so bad. "I've always felt our injuries were the
reason we haven't won the division," says Garner, who last year
had three key players--utilityman Dave Nilsson, first baseman
John Jaha and righthander Cal Eldred--on the DL for long
stretches. "Now we're healthy, and everyone else is banged up.
It's time to find out if I'm right."
NEW CHIP ON JAYS' SHOULDER
The get-tough attitude in Toronto starts at the top. General
manager Gord Ash showed up for spring training with a shaved
head. His new assistant G.M., Dave Stewart, was an intimidating
presence on the mound during a 16-year career, and as the
Padres' pitching coach last year he told his staff to stop
fraternizing with opposing players before games. Manager Jim
Fregosi, who took over for the fired Tim Johnson on March 17,
presided over the '93 National League champion Phillies, one of
the more colorful teams of the decade.
Ash wants his young club to shed its easygoing demeanor and
fight for wins like a band of rowdy sailors. "I don't think
baseball has to be a gentlemen's tea party," says Ash. "Not that
you want fisticuffs to erupt every night, but we want to play
the game so that other clubs don't want to play us."
The Blue Jays started to get the idea late last season. Standing
54-56 on July 31, they went 34-18 down the stretch. That surge
was fueled by dominating pitching, the emergence of some young
hitters and a fiery brand of play that had been lacking since
the breakup of the two-time world champions in the early '90s.
First baseman-DH Carlos Delgado and rightfielder Shawn Green
combined for 73 home runs and 215 RBIs last year, but they
weren't exactly fiery personalities. This season Ash wants to
see more of what he saw on Sept. 11, when the Blue Jays won 5-4
at Yankee Stadium in a game marred by a series of brushbacks and
a bench-clearing fracas. "That was the first brawl I've been
involved with since I've been here," says Green, who's entering
his fifth full season in Toronto.
But that incident was touched off by departed Toronto
righthander Roger Clemens, who plunked Scott Brosius after
blowing a three-run lead. Without Clemens, who was traded to the
Yankees in the off-season, Toronto's need for more grit on the
field and in the clubhouse is even more urgent. "We don't want
to be nice anymore," says Ash. --Stephen Cannella
Jay Buhner's Comeback
FISHING FOR A CURE
The big cardboard box arrived at Jay Buhner's Issaquah, Wash.,
house in December. Buhner was excited. What could it be? Who
could have sent it? He ripped it open--damn. "It was a couple of
first baseman's mitts from the Mariners," says Seattle's
rightfielder, frowning at the memory. "I put them on, then threw
them right away. I knew they wouldn't be needed."
At the time Buhner was three months removed from
career-threatening Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Seattle's plan was to bring him along slowly, put him at first
base when he was ready to play every day and then hope that he
could return to rightfield...someday. "We had no reason to think
Jay would be ready to play anytime before June," says Rick
Griffin, the Mariners' head trainer.
But come April 5, when Seattle opens at home against the White
Sox, the 34-year-old Buhner will be the Mariners' starting
rightfielder. "Without Jay, we don't win," says DH Edgar
Martinez. (With Buhner missing 89 games last year, including 59
with an injured left knee, Seattle had 14 fewer wins than in
1997, slumping to 76-85.) "I'm amazed at how quickly he's come
back, but he looks like the old Buhner: one of the best clutch
hitters I've seen."
Buhner attributes much of his speedy recovery to that great
American rehabilitation technique: fly-fishing. One month after
his surgery, he, Griffin and team physician Larry Pedegana went
on an annual excursion to a cabin on the Madison River near
Bozeman, Mont. Buhner, an avid flycaster, had planned on using
his left arm. But after a while he started to sneak off and go
righty. At first he had only 30% of his normal range of motion.
A week or so later he had 95%. "It was the constant repetition
of casting," he says, "and it never hurt."
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN St. Louis has a big hole to plug with the loss of Morris, who had a 2.53 ERA in 17 starts last year.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Buhner has always been known for his bat, but the '96 Gold Glove winner is no slouch in right either.
The HOT Corner
The Mariners' next Randy Johnson is making good progress.
Nineteen-year-old Ryan Anderson, a 6'10" lefthander and the 19th
player picked in the '97 draft, dazzled the team with his
fastball and slurve this spring. Throwing his fastball in the
mid 90s, he struck out 152 batters in 111 innings with Class A
Wisconsin last year and will begin this season at Double A
Giants teammates are still miffed at leftfielder Barry Bonds,
who in the off-season told the San Francisco Chronicle that he
wants to be in San Francisco "when we turn it around." Last
season the Giants lost a one-game playoff for the wild card....
The Todd Van Poppel saga continues. The Pirates figured the
former high school phenom, who has played with four
organizations since being picked 14th in the '90 draft, would
win a job in their bullpen. Instead he struggled with his
control and was outrighted to Triple A Nashville....
San Francisco manager Dusty Baker calls free-agent pickup F.P.
Santangelo "the new Derrel Thomas." Santangelo has played five
positions this spring: leftfield, centerfield, rightfield,
second base and third base. Thomas, an eight-position player,
was Baker's teammate with the Dodgers from 1979 through '83....
Dale Sveum, the Yankees' bullpen catcher late last season, is
battling for Arizona's final roster spot. Sveum, a 35-year-old
utility infielder, had 58 at bats for New York before being
released on Aug. 3 and offered the bullpen job....
Ten years ago Houston's Mike Scott won 20 games and Oakland's
Dave Stewart won 21 by relying on what was the game's trendiest
pitch at the time--the split-fingered fastball. These days some
pitching coaches are discouraging the use of the splitter. "I
don't teach it," says Giants pitching coach Ron Perranoski.
"Maybe they didn't know it back then, but it puts too much
pressure on the arm."