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Turning up the heat

It's a leap year, so it's natural to jump to conclusions. Yes, it's possible that the weaning off of steroids by some players last season is the biggest reason why there was no 50-home run hitter for the first time in 10 years. But it's also possible, if not more likely, that the reason is simpler and more definable at this time: pitching is making a slight comeback.

Runs per game increased last season from 9.2 per game to 9.5, but they're down from the 10.3 in 2000. Home runs per game have decreased or stayed the same for the last three years, dropping from 2.34 per game in 2000 to 2.1 last year. These are not huge changes, but they do show that the drop in offense began before the threat of steroid testing last year. Perhaps pitchers were tired of getting their brains beat out for seven or eight years, and they're fighting back. With help from a slightly bigger strike zone, they're making progress.

"Pitching is so much better today,'' says Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell. "When I came up (1991), 91 (mph) is about as hard as anyone threw except for like (Rob) Dibble who threw 94. Now, almost everyone throws 94, and most of them are starting pitchers. Look at Juan Cruz (of the Cubs). He throws 97 (mph) and he can't make their rotation.''

Astros left fielder Lance Berkman agreed. "We talk about it in the on-deck circle every night. After you face a starter throwing 95, they bring in some nasty reliever throwing 97. It's like 'who's this guy?' There was a time when you'd face a team that had one real good pitcher, and you could tee off against the rest of the rotation. Not anymore.''

Who has the best rotation in baseball? That used to be an easy question, there were so few from which to chose. Now you could make a case for eight teams, including the Cubs, who will be the first team since the '92 Braves to open a season with five starters who won at least 13 games the year before.

Look at some of the pitchers who have less than four years of major league service: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller, Josh Beckett, Francisco Rodriguez, Eric Gagne, Ben Sheets, Oliver Perez, Johan Santana, Brett Myers, Vicente Padilla, Brad Lidge, John Lackey, Mark Buehrle, C.C. Sabathia and Joel Pineiro. Brandon Webb, Dontrelle Willis, Rich Harden, Ryan Wagner and Edwin Jackson made their big league debuts last year. "His (Webb) ball moves more than any pitcher I've ever seen,'' Berkman said. "He's like Kevin Brown.''

Webb was in the minor leagues at the beginning of last season. "People should really understand what's going on in the minor leagues,'' said Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg, whose 2003 season was his first full year in the big leagues. "There's a light show going on down there.'' Wherever you go, whatever level, pitchers are throwing 95 mph.

It is starting before the minor leagues. It was only a few years ago that every high school kid with a dream to play in the big leagues knew the best way to get there was to hit constantly, so he spent most of his time plunging quarters into slots at the batting cage. Or, having one built in his back yard. Now, it appears, more than a few teenagers noticed the shortage of pitching in the major leagues five years ago, and worked on their motion, not their swing. One scout, during a two-month period preparing for last year's June amateur free agent draft, saw 15 high school kids who threw 95 mph. Rice University, the 2003 NCAA champions, had a half dozen guys who threw in the 90's.

Position players are bigger and stronger than ever, and so are pitchers. Prior is 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. Beckett is 6-5, 215. Miller is 6-2, 220. Harden was a hockey player, he pitches with that kind of hostile attitude. So do most of these new guys, including Oswalt (43-17 lifetime). Thirty minutes before a start, he'll be drinking a cup of coffee seemingly without a care in the world. With stuff that outrageous, there is no need to worry.

While a new breed of pitcher has emerged the last few years, the future Hall of Fame pitchers are throwing effectively. Roger Clemens is one of the 10 best, if not top five, starting pitchers ever. Greg Maddux isn't far behind. Pedro Martinez, given peak value, is better than Clemens or Maddux. Randy Johnson, a five-time Cy Young winner, will retire as one of the top five left-handers of all time with Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton. Tom Glavine has a shot at 300 wins. Mariano Rivera is one of the greatest closers ever.

Baseball is a cyclical game. The hitters have run the place for 10 years, but maybe it's slowly starting to turn. Maybe we won't have a 50-home run hitter this year, either. Maybe it won't be primarily because of steroid withdrawal, but more because of a bunch of young, angry pitchers throwing 95 mph. Draw your own conclusion, just look before you leap.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.