Blue Jays off to flying start in 2nd half

ON THE AL EAST

Rebuilding team appears headed in right direction

Baseball

July 21, 2002|By Joe Christensen

All it took was one two-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays last week for the Orioles to realize their second-half schedule won't be quite as easy as it looked.

The Blue Jays entered the All-Star break 34-52, and the Orioles felt pretty good about their 42-43 mark, knowing they still had all 19 games with Toronto remaining.

The Orioles arrived in Toronto on Wednesday already smarting from Tuesday's news that shortstop Mike Bordick would be out at least three weeks with a hairline fracture of his right kneecap.

After winning three straight games against Oakland and Seattle, the Orioles got swept in that short series with resurgent Toronto, which is 8-2 since the break.

Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi seems to have this team on the right track.

"We are rebuilding," he said last week. "When I took the job, I said we were going to rebuild, and we're just going to continue on that path. I've seen signs every day, since we got to the halfway mark of the season, of us starting to get better as a group, better as individuals."

When the Blue Jays jettisoned Raul Mondesi to the New York Yankees, it not only saved them $12.5 million, it also gave them room to play 24-year-old prospect Josh Phelps, who is batting .300.

Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca has called 24-year-old center fielder Vernon Wells his most improved player. Wells had a two-run homer against the Yankees on Tuesday night, then hit a three-run shot against the Orioles in Wednesday's 7-1 victory.

Then there's 24-year-old third baseman Eric Hinske, who didn't have a hit against the Orioles last week but remains the favorite for American League Rookie of the Year honors.

Hinske is hitting .288 with 16 home runs and 53 RBIs.

"I think he's honestly just starting to scratch the surface," Ricciardi said. "His best baseball's going to be ahead of him.

"The thing about Eric that's comforting is he has great mental toughness, and with that mental toughness, it allows you to get through the rigors and the ups and downs. I think that's what's going to carry him through."

Garciaparra's slump

The Boston Red Sox entered another pivotal series with the Yankees this weekend with shortstop Nomar Garciaparra mired in a long slump.

Garciaparra hit .330 in April, .318 in May and .300 in June. The numbers were declining, but no one saw them dipping to .212 for July.

On Tuesday, the Detroit Tigers intentionally walked Johnny Damon to pitch to Garciaparra with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning.

"I would have done the same thing," said Garciaparra, who grounded out. "Have you seen me?"

Garciaparra insists his struggles have nothing to do with his surgically repaired right wrist.

"It's been feeling all right," he said. "It has its moments, which I expect. There are some days where there's achiness and soreness. But there's no point where I'm going, `Oh-oh, what's wrong with it?' "

No slowing Lowe

Derek Lowe, whose conversion from reliever to starter this season has been key to Boston's success, has pitched 132 innings, nine more than he has thrown in any other season. But he quieted recent murmurs that he is tired with his eight-inning performance in Boston's 6-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Wednesday night.

Red Sox manager Grady Little pulled Lowe after 83 pitches, however, proving he is still being careful.

"We're not in this thing for him to get a bunch of complete games," Little said. "We're in this for him to get a complete season, and games like this just help him in that cause."

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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