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AROUND THE HORN / ROSS NEWHAN

Neither Team Feels Cursed by the Garciaparra Trade

August 29, 2004|ROSS NEWHAN

The clubhouse chorus is unanimous. The Boston Red Sox openly say they are a better team since the four-way deadline deal that sent shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs, who have their own take on it and are saying "thank you" as well.

The Red Sox are 18-7 since Garciaparra left, believing they have improved defensively, spiritually and in all other ways with the acquisitions of Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts.

The one certainty is that they will have a continuing opportunity to prove it over the next 10 days, when they put their East Division and American League wild-card hopes on the line in three-game series with the Angels, Texas Rangers and Oakland A's -- all harboring their own division and wild-card hopes.

"We got rid of a very good player in Nomar," center fielder Johnny Damon said, "but with these three players, we're better defensively everywhere because of it -- at first base, shortstop and in the outfield. Now, everybody's pretty relaxed and excited about the way we've been playing. There's just a lot more life."

The trade, added Curt Schilling, "changed the atmosphere immediately" because "Nomar had a lot of things going on" and that tended to be "its own story. Now there isn't anybody doing their own thing, and that's different."

The Red Sox, of course, have nobody to blame but themselves for upsetting Garciaparra with their mishandled attempt to acquire Alex Rodriguez during the winter.

Then, refusing to let the high-voltage trade speak for itself, Boston management ignited a war of words by floating its own version of how Garciaparra injured his Achilles' tendon in the spring and issuing, for the 101st time, a review of their contract offers to him.

The Cubs couldn't care less. They filled a position that had been the National League's weakest offensively with a player who has hit .325 since his acquisition, didn't have to break up their touted rotation to do it and are 15-9 since the trade, having won seven of their last 10 to maintain their lead in the NL wild-card race.

The primary beneficiary of the improved Boston defense has been sinkerball pitcher Derek Lowe, who induces more ground balls, 74.8%, than any other pitcher in the majors. Lowe has lost only one of six starts since the trade, is 3-1 in that period and, after a terrible start, is 12-10 coming up to free-agent eligibility in November.

"He has more than one reason for wanting to finish the year strong," Damon said, "and it looks like he's going to do it."

*

Ichiro Suzuki made it official Thursday night, becoming the first player to collect 200 hits in each of his first four major league seasons.

The Seattle right fielder had a running start in the majors, considering his experience in Japan, just as his running start out of the left-side batter's box has contributed to a major league-leading 41 infield hits and some grumbling from AL managers and general managers who claim Suzuki gets the same benefit on close calls at first that some umpires tend to give good hitters on balls and strikes.

"It's become almost automatic for Ichiro to get the call at first and almost automatic for other players not to," said an AL manager who insisted on anonymity.

"If Ichiro is safe seven of 10 times on close plays at first, I guarantee that other players are out seven of 10. It's frustrating. I've got some guys who can run. The play should be called on its merit."

*

Nobody employs more gamesmanship than Tony La Russa, which is why it was a little hypocritical for the St. Louis manager to accuse Lloyd McClendon of that tactic when the Pittsburgh manager asked the umpires to check that strange spot on the bill of Julian Tavarez's cap. They found pine tar there, resulting in a 10-game suspension for the reliever.

McClendon, of course, was probably operating on inside information, because Tavarez pitched for the Pirates last year.

"What I did wasn't personal," McClendon said. "It was business."

Actually, it could be classified as ongoing business, considering that he and La Russa nearly came to blows during a June game in Pittsburgh when McClendon took exception to La Russa's yelling at Pirate rookie Mike Gonzalez after he'd thrown an inside pitch to Tony Womack.

Gamesmanship?

It's in the eye of the beholder.

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