Wednesday, July 18, 2001 Volume 66, Issue 154


Astros charging for head of NL Central

The Mendoza Line

Ed De La Garza

Right about now, Chicago Cubs fans are collectively screaming, "Doh!"

A proposed deal that would have sent Tampa Bay Devil Rays first baseman Fred McGriff to Chicago was vetoed by the Crime Dog himself. Citing he wanted to stay
close to his family and that playing for a winner wasn't his main priority, McGriff opted to stay with a last-place club.

But he may eventually say yes to a deal, provided it's sweetened significantly -- and not necessarily by the Cubs.

While that's bad news for Chicago, which saw its National League Central Division lead over Houston dwindle to two games, that doesn't mean the Cubs won't keep
looking for another bat.

Pitching has kept them atop the standings (first for runs allowed), but they rank near the bottom of the pack in the NL -- and dead last out of all contending teams in
runs scored.

The Cubs badly need someone with power -- aside from Sammy Sosa -- if they want to avoid their usual collapse. There's been some talk of their trying to get Steve
Finley out of Arizona.

OK, even the most loyal Chicago fans dread the idea of an Astros team that's finally starting to click. Nothing against the Cubs, but they're only keeping Houston's
seat warm.

Around the bases

Controversial Cleveland Indians closer John Rocker was demoted after giving up four runs Monday in a 10-8 loss to the Astros. Manager Charlie Manuel didn't
specify whether or not it would be a permanent move. He also didn't bother to tell the easygoing and always affable Rocker before telling the media. Wickman
reclaims the role Rocker assumed when the Indians traded for him.

Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez won't be back in the lineup until at least Sept. 1, meaning the New York Yankees will more than likely widen their one-game lead
over Boston in the American League East Division.

But Boston will also have a hard time keeping its lead in the Wild Card race. Cleveland and a resurgent Oakland team will try to extend the "Bambino Curse." It's
long from over for Boston, but its brightest spot may be Manny Ramirez's contention for the Triple Crown.

With the trading deadline on the horizon, contending teams -- the Astros included -- are making serious bids to acquire the one player who can put them over the

Topping the list of names is underrated Colorado Rockies pitcher Pedro Astacio. He only has a 6-11 win-loss record (he's won only three of his last 16 starts).
Teams may be willing to neglect his 5.14 ERA, considering he pitches in Colorado, but they may not be willing to pay his $9 million salary next season.

Other rumored names include Jose Cruz Jr., Sterling Hitchcock, Dmitri Young, Jermaine Dye, Woody Williams, Todd Jones, Andres Galarraga and Steve Finley.

Hard charging

As of press time, the Astros were a mere two games out of first place in the NL Central. They've been riding the success of Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, but their run
production is second only to Colorado.

With Scott Elarton being placed on the disabled list, the Astros avoid having to make a decision that could effectively end the young pitcher's career. But it does put
them in the position of needing a replacement. Dave Mlicki will replace Elarton for the time being, but his 7.16 ERA indicates he won't fare much better.

They don't need someone to fill Elarton's shoes. They need someone to help them in the playoff race. This is where Al Leiter comes in.

It was reported Monday that the Astros had made inquiries about the New York Mets pitcher. It was also reported Leiter had the right to veto a trade to any one of 12
teams. But it wasn't known if Houston was on the list.

Leiter is only 5-8, but he does have a decent 3.42 ERA (second for full-time Mets starters) and has always been a workhorse for whatever team he's on. It's probably
a long shot, but the news at least means the Astros don't want to stand pat.

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