The Phillies gave up on Mike Williams. So did the Red Sox and Royals. And hardly an eyebrow was raised when the Pirates signed him to a minor league contract last year. Now, National League hitters are learning about the former Virginia Tech star who has developed into one of the game's most reliable closers.
After getting one save in his first 91 major league appearances, Williams entered the weekend having converted 11 of 13 save chances, including nine in a row. Now 30 years old, he made the Pirates out of spring training as a middle reliever, but has been so good that he already has been rewarded with a two-year, $2.2 million contract and the closer's job.
He is succeeding not with power, but with a decent slider and a unique curveball that has baffled hitters.
"The command he's gained of the breaking pitch has made a big difference for Mike," Pirates General Manager Cam Bonifay said. "It comes in at a different plane than most breaking pitches and it's really giving the hitters a hard time. It's become the out pitch he's needed."
A Winning System
The Texas bullpen entered the weekend with a 13-game winning streak and was
16-1 for the season. That's a .940 winning percentage, and if the Rangers continue at anywhere close to that pace, they'll finish as the greatest relief corps in history. Only two bullpens have had winning percentages of at least .700: the 1998 Yankees, who were 28-9 for a .757 winning percentage; and the 1995 Indians, who were 32-13 for a .711 winning percentage.
Rangers right-hander Jeff Zimmerman could be headed for the AL rookie of the year award with a 6-0 record and a 1.15 ERA. Another rookie, Mike Venafro, is 2-0 with a 2.13 earned run average. Zimmerman and Tim Crabtree have pitched 14 shutout innings in their 10 victories.
Bright Looking Reds
The Reds are the real deal and proved it again by going 9-3 on a grueling 13-day road trip to Florida, New York, Kansas City and Minnesota. That they entered the weekend seven games over .500 is amazing since their starting pitchers are averaging just 5.3 innings per turn -- the lowest in the National League.
But the Cincinnati bullpen is tied for the major league lead with 15 victories and has a 2.15 ERA in its last 35 games before Friday. Rookie Scott Williamson has six saves and has struck out 47 in 36 innings. Scott Sullivan is 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA.
The proudest father of the week may be Ross Newhan, the respected national baseball reporter of the Los Angeles Times. His son, David, was called up by the Padres last week and scored the game-winning run in his first game. He followed that by getting three hits in his first start at second base on Tuesday. Newhan, 25, earned the promotion with a 23-for-47 stretch at Class AAA Las Vegas that raised his average to .307. He also had 10 home runs.
The Padres have used nine rookies this season and are considering whether to call up highly touted catcher Ben Davis, who is hitting .388 at Las Vegas. They've got so many kids that their eight position players were making a total of $2.8 million in one game last week. They've got $20.2 million worth of salary on the disabled list.
Forget about McGwire and Sosa. Perhaps the best home run race is in Seattle, where Ken Griffey has hit 23 and pitcher Jeff Fassero has allowed 23. While Griffey chases McGwire's single-season mark of 70, Fassero is hoping to avoid Bert Blyleven's record of allowing 50 in 1986.
The Indians are on a pace for some incredible offensive numbers. At their current rate, Roberto Alomar, Travis Fryman, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez and Omar Vizquel will score at least 100 runs each. Alomar, Lofton and Vizquel will steal at least 39 bases apiece; and Ramirez will drive in 193 runs.
"I love where we're at," hitting coach Charlie Manuel said, "but I could see us being a better team offensively than we are now."
The Indians are leading the majors with a .301 batting average. They're on a pace to score 1,092 runs, which would break the major league record of 1,067.
A Lot to Learn
The A's held off calling their top pitching prospect to the big leagues as long as they could last week. In his debut, Tim Hudson struck out 11 Padres in five innings. He also allowed three runs, seven hits and four walks. "People in this organization think Tim Hudson is going to be an outstanding big league pitcher," General Manager Billy Beane said. "But there's a lot of ups and downs in the big leagues." Hudson, 23, was Oakland's sixth-round pick in 1997 and had a 7-0 record and a 1.74 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 67 innings in the minors.
That Caps It
The National League has told Astros pitcher Jose Lima to stop wearing the cap on which he has written the number of every Houston player on the disabled list, plus coaches Tom McCraw and Jose Cruz, who are taking injury-related leaves of absence. Lima has been the best pitcher on baseball's best pitching staff, going 26-10 since the start of the 1998 season.
Angels right-hander Tim Belcher was 1-3 with a 9.89 ERA in his first seven starts. He's 3-2 with a 3.79 ERA in his last six. "I'm not doing anything drastically different," he said. "It's all about location and making pitches, getting the defensive plays when you need them and scoring enough runs.
"That's what it takes."
Another Curve in the Road
One of baseball's best stories of last season was Gregg Olson's remarkable recovery from an elbow injury that threatened to end his once promising career. After bouncing around for four years, Olson had a great season for the Diamondbacks, saving 30 games and regaining what was once one of baseball's best curveballs.
This season is a different story. Olson finally was removed from the closer's role by Manager Buck Showalter this week after blowing his sixth save chance of the season. Moments after watching Cubs catcher Tyler Houston send an Olson fastball into the seats, Showalter said he would use Vladimir Nunez and rookie Byung Hyun Kim as his closers while Olson looks for solutions.
Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks still have no idea if right-hander Todd Stottlemyre will pitch again this season. He is on the disabled list with a torn rotator cuff but has declined surgery hoping that a strengthening program will allow him to pitch again this year.
"I promise I'll be back this season," he said. "Nothing will stop me from returning before the year's out."
NICE GESTURE OF THE WEEK
Padres owner John Moores will personally deliver a National League Championship Series ring to two former players. He handed one to Ken Caminiti Friday in Houston, then headed to Phoenix to give one to Steve Finley. Moores also planned to present diamond pendants to each player's wife.
"You don't manage here that much. You persevere. You hang in there, and hang in there."
-- Rockies Manager Jim Leyland. During Colorado's recent six-game homestand, the Rockies erased deficits of four runs once, two runs twice and one run once. In 339 regular season games played at Coors Field, a team has scored 10 or more runs 146 times.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Matchups to Watch
Braves at Astros
Monday through Wednesday
TV: Monday, 7 p.m., Tuesday, 8:05 p.m., TBS
If major league baseball is lacking for great starting pitching it may be because the Braves and Astros have cornered the market. Atlanta features Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, with seven Cy Young awards among them. Houston may have the league's best staff this season, even without Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. Jose Lima is one of two 10-game winners in the major leagues this season.
Seattle at Cleveland
Friday through Sunday
TV: Saturday, 1:15 p.m., FOX; Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPN
Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez visit Jacobs Field, which the Indians hitters have turned into a launching pad this season. Through Friday the Indians had a .301 team batting average to go with 80 home runs, led by left fielder Manny Ramirez (15 home runs). Seattle's Griffey, meanwhile, leads the majors with 23 home runs, and Rodriguez has hit 10 home runs since returning from the disabled list in mid-May.
Baltimore at Chicago White Sox
Albert Belle returns to Chicago for the first time in an Orioles uniform.
Texas at New York Yankees
The AL East-leading Yankees host the AL West-leading Rangers.
CAPTION: Mike Williams had bounced around the major leagues as a middle reliever before becoming the Pittsburgh Pirates' closer at age 30.
CAPTION: Gregg Olson decides to sit out the home run trot of Cubs catcher Tyler Houston, resulting in Olson's sixth blown save of season.