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Inside Baseball | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Injuries Have Forced Baker to Be Creative

June 13, 2004|Ross Newhan

Dusty Baker is sitting in the visiting manager's office at Angel Stadium, that other haunted house in Anaheim where Scott Spiezio and Darin Erstad bedeviled his San Francisco Giants just when they seemed on the verge of wrapping up the 2002 World Series.

Now, Baker is manager of the Chicago Cubs, who have their own history of ghosts and curses, from the dreaded billy goat to Steve Bartman -- and so much more.

That, of course, is exactly why Baker wants it emphatically clear that a siege of injuries plaguing his touted Cubs through the first two-plus months of the National League Central's five-team race does not mean the franchise remains in the grip of mystical misfortune.

"A lot of people think it's the uniform, but it's not the uniform," Baker says. "It's the people in the uniform, and it's been unbelievable.

"I've been through a lot of stuff, but nothing like this. I'm just glad we have the depth we have."

Depth is mandatory in this era of bulging disks and disabled lists, but the Cub injuries, like those of the Angels, require a depth beyond the 25-man roster.

Baker currently has seven players on the disabled list, including Sammy Sosa, his most feared power hitter; Kerry Wood, one of his two most dominant starting pitchers; Alex Gonzalez and Mark Grudzielanek, his regular shortstop and second baseman, and Joe Borowski, his closer.

The Cubs have put 10 players on the DL, including left-handed relievers Kent Mercker and Mike Remlinger, and, of course, starter Mark Prior -- irreplaceable, like Wood and Sosa.

Prior didn't make his first start until last week, meaning Baker has yet to have Prior and Wood together in a rotation that includes Matt Clement, Greg Maddux and Carlos Zambrano, a rotation expected to be baseball's best and deepest.

Instead, the Cubs -- and others in the Central -- had been forced to

swallow the indignity of trailing the Cincinnati Reds and their recycled rotation through much of the first two months.

A Cincinnati rotation that can be called the Borrowed Red Machine includes Jose Acevedo, Cory Lidle, Aaron Harang, Paul Wilson and Todd Van Poppel, whose combined record last season was 30-32.

In Oakland a few days ago, Cincinnati Manager Dave Miley had reflected on the fact that his team had the league's best record despite having been outscored and said, "Our stats defy the odds."

His has been a house-of-cards rotation that figured to crumble and now seems to be doing that.

The Reds were routed in three games in Oakland and have lost five in a row, giving up 54 runs and ceding first place in the division to St. Louis.

The Reds still have potential thunder in Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey and the currently injured Austin Kearns, but there is a suspicion that management will disassemble the team again if the April and May mirrors can't be repaired.

General Manager Jim Bowden and Manager Bob Boone were fired last July 28, and Aaron Boone, Jose Guillen and Scott Williamson were among several traded players.

The scars linger.

Barry Larkin, the team's veteran shortstop and conscience, sat at his locker in Oakland and said there was a "cautious optimism" that management wouldn't repeat the sins of 2003.

However, he added, the fire sale has been hard to forget, particularly amid ongoing speculation.

"We heard the rumors that if we didn't get off to a good start they were going to trade Griffey," Larkin said, "and we've heard the rumors that if we don't sustain what we started they'll still trade Griffey.

"In spring training," he continued, "they traded, in my opinion, the best pitcher in the organization in Chris Reitsma, saying they wanted to get younger when Reitsma was only 26. So guys were really questioning what's going on again, and that's what happens when a club has gone through what this one has in the last two years."

Can the Reds survive?

"We can if the pitching gives us a chance to win as it had been doing for the most part," Larkin said. "We don't have a proven track record on the mound, but it's about performance, not names.

"Hopefully, we'll get to a point in the season where if we need some help, the front office will go get it instead of taking away integral parts of the club like they did last year."

Baker can't worry about Cincinnati's worries. Neither can he worry about the quick-to-surface criticism that comes with managing the Cubs.

The talk shows have been after Baker again for letting Zambrano make 121 pitches in a rout of the Cardinals on Thursday.

In Anaheim, Baker said the Cubs have lost a lot of good people over the years by the city's tendency to be "overly critical about everything." He said the criticism had left Don Baylor "down-and-out miserable" by the time he was fired as manager in 2002 and "I don't plan on being miserable. Life's too short to be miserable. They can shoot all they want. I'm hard to hit."

Perhaps, but who can predict the future if the injuries foil Chicago's expectations?

On Saturday morning, the Cubs were tied with the improved Milwaukee Brewers for fourth in the Central, 3 1/2 games behind the Cardinals.

Baker cited the division's depth and said, "That's what really is keeping us in the race while we're hurt. Everybody can beat everybody else. It stops somebody from running away."

In other words, a dogfight to the end?

"Just how you want it," he said, slipping into the uniform that represents so much star-crossed history, "especially when you've got no choice."

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