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Ortiz can swing the stick

1. The Best Matchup of the Week
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Philadelphia at Atlanta: Monday through Thursday.

Remember those ads where Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux
told us that "chicks dig the long ball?" Two other
Braves pitchers are carrying the hitting torch for
their mound-bound brethren this year. Russ Ortiz is
having another fine season at the plate, actually
beating out well-known hitting hurler and teammate
Mike Hampton.

Here are the top 10 OPS among pitchers with 50 or more plate
appearances:

1. Woody Williams (St. L.): .712
2. Ortiz: .696
3. Darren Oliver (Col.): .657
4. Adam Eaton (S.D.): .652
5. Jeff Suppan (late of Pitt.): .628
6. Mark Prior (Chi.): .624
7. Brett Tomko (St. L.): .610
8. Dontrelle Willis (Fla.): .606
9. Carlos Zambrano (Chi.): .606
10. Jason Jennings (Col.): .592

Hampton's .575 puts him just outside of the top 10.
No position-playing starter would finish below this
top 10, but two players, Brad Ausmus of Houston
(.594) and Alex Cora of Los Angeles (.599) would not
make the top five.

2. The Closest Matchup of the Week
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Minnesota at Chi. White Sox: Monday through Thursday.

Something happened on the way to mediocrity over the
past 10 games: the travelers veered off toward a
better place. For a while there, it looked the AL Central
Division title race would follow one of these previous
templates:

163-160: 1973 NL East, New York and St. Louis
165-159: 1984, AL West, Kansas City and California or Minnesota
168-156: 1987, AL West, Minnesota and Chicago

This list shows the worst-ever combined records of
first- and second-place teams. Over the last 10
games, however, the Twins have gone 8-2 and the White
Sox 6-4 to further elevate the class level of the
race.

In the long run, the Twins will probably be glad they
eased Johan Santana -- who pitches the third game of this series -- rather than force-feeding him into the
starting rotation, having saved some wear and tear on
his arm.

For their purposes this year, one has to
wonder what might have been had he been in there the
entire way, though. He was clearly the Twins' best pitcher
heading into the season and was briefly slated for the
starting rotation when Eric Milton went out for the year in spring training. The Twins then surprised one
and all by signing Kenny Rogers and it was back to the
pen for Johan. Had he been starting along, would he be
16-4 instead of 8-2 in that role? If so, how far ahead
would the Twins be rather than tied?

Maybe a year from now when he's anchoring the staff
and emerging as one of the game's best starters this
slow acclimation will look like a stroke of genius.
For now, Santana's ERA of 2.85 as a starter is nearly
two runs better than the next-best Twins starter
(Rogers), which leaves us to wonder what could have
been for 2003.

3. The Cramming For Finals Matchup of the Week
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Anaheim at Oakland: Monday through Thursday.

The A's are the college students of Major League
Baseball; they leave everything to the last minute.
For the first part of the semester, they hang around
the dorm, cutting class and only doing some of
their assignments. Come finals week though, they hit
the libes and make the Dean's list. Here is a
rehashing of their all-too-famous late-season records
of recent memory: over the past three seasons, they
have played .738 ball from August 1 on after playing
at .559 prior to that. The ironic thing about this
year is that they had a better pre-August 1 record
than in the previous two years, but will not end up
with a better final record. This is in spite of their
recent upturn in fortunes. In order to best their
August-September finishes from 2001 and 2002, they'd
have to win every game from here on out. Sorry, only
one 20-game winning streak per team per century,
please.

Speaking of hanging around college dorms and doing
very little, there comes a time in a person's life
when they really need to put away that most childish
of impulses: making like a bit player in a Cheech and
Chong movie. The time to do that should probably start
on the day you have your first kid. By the time you
have three, as a certain member of the Angels'
entourage who was recently busted for marijuana
possession does, it is well past time to be acting
like a 15-year old at a tree fort bong party.

Now, I'll just jump off my soap box and talk about ...

4. The Old School Matchup of the Week
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Cincinnati at Chi. Cubs: Friday through Sunday.

Do you ever wonder how some teams win any games at
all? Take the Reds of recent weeks. For the first part
of the season they had the worst starting pitching
around, but some very talented men fighting for playing
time in their outfield and some solid contributors at
other positions as well.

Now, through trade and injury, all of those men are gone. What is left is
something very much like the Tigers as the Reds begin
to trot out some of their young arms backed up by a
patchwork lineup. It's not fun to watch and few are,
in spite of the new ballpark. Had the Reds not had all
those heroic and improbable comeback victories earlier
this year, they'd really be cleaning the bottom of the
fish tank. This should leave the Cubs in good stead
for this series.

5. The Biggest Mismatchup of the Week
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Detroit at N.Y. Yankees: Tuesday through Thursday.

What does the future hold for players on teams of
legendary non-accomplishment? Is there life beyond
playing for a team with a bad record of historical
proportions?

1935 Braves: Only one Braves regular was still at it
when World War II began seven years later. Pitcher
Danny McFayden, who was 30 in '35, won 45 games over
the next three seasons, allowing him to still be
hanging on in 1942. Rookie Elbie Fletcher had the best
future, playing until 1949 when he finished his major
league career at the age of 33. Among players who had
at least 100 at-bats and pitchers who threw a minimum
of 50 innings, no less than 10 appeared in one or
fewer seasons after 1935. Even star slugger Wally
Berger only lasted another four seasons.

1916 Athletics: Even though this team posted the worst
record of the modern era, there were a surprising
number of them that emerged from the ashes to carve
out significant careers. First baseman Stuffy McInnis
was still in the majors a decade later. Wally Schang
is one of the better catchers not in the Hall of the
Fame. He was still in the bigs 15 years later. Val
Picinich was a 19-year old rookie on the '16 A's who
played another 17 seasons without ever managing to get
more than 358 plate appearances. (I don't know if
that's a record for longest career without qualifying
for a batting title, but it has to be up there.)

Amos Strunk was the one standout in the lineup and he
lasted all or part of another eight big league
seasons. Shortstop Whitey Witt was 20 at the time and
made it to 30 in the majors. Staff ace Joe Bush was on
hand to see the A's go full cycle. He was there for
the pre-dismantling of the dynasty in '13-'14,
experienced the low of 1916 and was still at it 12
years later for a brief stint with a revitalized
Philadelphia team. In the interim, he pitched in the
World Series for the Red Sox and Yankees.

1962 Mets: A handful of Amazins went on to lengthy
stints as major leaguers. The best among them was Jim
Hickman, an older rookie at 25 in 1962 who was still
playing 12 years later. Catcher Chris Cannizzaro
lasted long enough to play for another expansion team,
the '69 Padres, whom he represented in the All-Star
Game. Robert L. Miller pitched another 12 years for
eight different teams, finishing up with the Mets
again in 1974.

Who among the 2003 Tigers can we speculate about
having long and productive careers?

6. The Biggest National League Mismatchup of the Week
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San Francisco at San Diego: Tuesday through Thursday.

Of the five Giants pitchers who won the most games for
the 2002 club, only two have won a game for them this
year. Jason Schmidt has 14 and Kirk Rueter seven. Ryan
Jensen
has been injured and hasn't registered a
decision in 2003. Russ Ortiz and Livan Hernandez have combined to win 33 games for other teams.

Where are their victories coming from, then? With
Schmidt as the only pitcher in double figures in
victories, the answer is: from a wide variety of
sources. The Giants and Diamondbacks are the only
plus-.500 teams who have gotten less than two-thirds
of their victories credited to starters. The Giants
are currently 11th in the league in that category.

The most
N.Y. Mets: 86 percent
Los Angeles: 78 percent
Chi. Cubs: 77 percent

The least
Cincinnati: 48 percent
Milwaukee: 57 percent
Arizona: 61 percent

The Mets are interesting in that they have two
starters with winning percentages over .620 (Steve
Trachsel and Al Leiter) yet a team winning percentage
almost .200 points lower than that. On the other
extreme are the Reds who have arrived at a very
similar record with very little positive input from
their starters.

Based on all this, it would stand to reason, then,
that the Mets bullpen has the worst record in the
league while the Giants would have the best and it so
happens that they do, going 9-25 and 28-12
respectively.

7. The American League Batting Title Matchup of the Week
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Chi. White Sox at Boston: Friday through Sunday.

This series features four of the five top leaders in
the American League batting race in the persons of
Bill Mueller, Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra and
Magglio Ordonez. Regardless of who among the
frontrunners (a group that includes Derek Jeter of the
Yankees), it looks as though the winner is going to
finish in the .320s. This will be the first American
Leaguer to do so since George Brett won at .329 in
1990. If the current figure of .322 holds, it will be
the ninth-lowest title number in league history:

.301 Carl Yastrzemski, 1968
.308 Elmer Flick, 1905
.309 Stuffy Stirnweiss, 1945
.316 Frank Robinson, 1966
.318 Rod Carew, 1972
.320 Pete Runnels, 1960
.321 Tony Oliva, 1965
.321 Carl Yastrzemski, 1963
.322 Derek Jeter or Bill Mueller, 2003 (as of Monday)

Of course, this only tells part of the story. Yaz's
struggle to reach .300 in 1968 is legendary because
the entire league was depressed. So, relative to the
context of that moment in time, Yaz's .301 is actually
kind of robust. Not so the 2003 number of .322. The
differential between the league average and the
leader's number is the lowest ever both in terms of
the raw number (54 points above the league average,
tied with Stuffy Stirnweiss of the '45 Yankees who hit
.309 in a league that hit .255) and that difference as
a percentage of the league total.

Fewest points above league average
54 Derek Jeter/Bill Mueller, 2003
54 Stuffy Stirnweiss, 1945
63 Fred Lynn, 1975
65 Pete Runnells, 1960
67 Lou Boudreau, 1944
67 Elmer Flick, 1905

What does this mean? Nothing, really. It's just one of
those things that happens once in a while. Next year
Ichiro or Manny Ramirez or somebody will hit .350 and
this will be soon forgotten.

8. The Wait 'Til Next Year Matchup of the Week
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San Diego at Los Angeles: Friday through Sunday.

The Padres get the short end of the stick by being the
underdog in the Biggest National League Mismatchup
this week and that is not entirely fair. That is based
on overall season records. The Padres are 11-6 in
recent play and are beginning to look like a pretty
interesting team for 2004.

With the addition of Brian Giles and a new stadium as well as super prospect
shortstop Khalil Greene to an ever-improving Sean
Burroughs, they should at least be fun to watch next
year. Will they improve enough to punch through all
the way to the top? That's probably not the point of
the exercise.

9. The Philosophical Differences Regarding the MVP Matchup of the Week
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Texas at Seattle: Friday through Sunday.

Is it possible that Alex Rodriguez is going to, once
again, put together the best season in the American
League and not win the Most Valuable Player award? (On
the other hand, until his latest swoon (not to be
confused with his April swoon), there were some who
were touting Ichiro Suzuki for another Most Valuable
Player award. This is in spite of a wide gap in
demonstrable contributions between the two, even
pre-Ichiro slump.

If not A-Rod for MVP, then whom? Nobody will vote for
Carlos Delgado for the same reasons that A-Rod won't
get support: his team is out of it. Nomar Garciaparra
and Manny Ramirez are doing well for the Red Sox, but there
is little separating them unless you wish to veer off
into intangibles. Yankees leader Jason Giambi has been
slumping like nobody's business and that is going to
weigh on voter's minds. If the Mariners don't get in
the postseason, what will that do to the candidacy of
Bret Boone, who is having one of the best years in the
league?

With no clear-cut candidate from a playoff-bound team,
this would be an excellent opportunity to finally give
A-Rod a big trophy.

10. The Naked Skeleton in the Closet Matchup of the Week
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Minnesota at Cleveland: Friday through Sunday.

According to a report by Andy Call in The Canton
Repository, Indians farmhand Kazuhito Tadano once
appeared in an x-rated movie in his native Japan.
Because this was common knowledge there, he was not
given any attention in their amateur draft, leading
the Indians with an opportunity to sign the youngster
with the very impressive fastball. The interesting
thing about it is that Call reports that a number of
Tadano's college teammates were in the video as well.
Aren't Japanese ballplayers supposed to practice 16
hours a day? Where does one find the time to shoot the
odd porno movie?

I think this revelation means it's time we revisit my
idea for a publication dedicated only to sports
scandals. I think there's room in our nation's
supermarket checkout lines for just such a fine
tabloid, don't you? Of course, I wouldn't put my good
name on such a rag, I would simply accept a one-time
seven-figure check for coming up with the idea.

11. The George Steinbrenner Platform for Melting Down
Matchup of the Week
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Tampa Bay at N.Y. Yankees: Friday through Sunday.

The Yankees will probably win three out of four (there is a day-night doubleheader on Saturday), but
you know it won't be enough:

George's Prayer
As I bluster through this life
I state I'll have no truck
With disappointing so and sos
Who do nothing more than suck.

(I mean this in the modern sense
So please don't tsk and cluck.)
I'm talking about my underlings
Who do nothing more than suck.

Yes they win, but not enough
To earn their Yankee buck
These poor pinstriped pretenders
Who do nothing more than suck.

I don't believe in miracles
I believe one buys good luck
Yet I've bought a bunch of stiffs
Who do nothing more than suck.

So take me now, I beg, oh Lord!
Free me of this mortal muck
Deliver me from my hirelings
Who do nothing more than suck!

12. The Mystery Matchup of the Week
? vs. ?

Earlier this season we talked about teams and their
relation to amusement facilities. This week's Mystery
Matchup involves World's Fairs. Which two opponents
have significant ties to World's Fairs?

Last week's clue: These two teams took their names
from previous major league entries, although not
necessarily in the same city in both cases. The names
are variations on the previous names.

I was looking for Boston Red Sox versus Chicago White
Sox, both names were headline-friendly updates of the
19th Century Red Stockings and White Stockings.

Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at jbakerespn@yahoo.com