The Orioles may no longer be baseball's most disappointing team. The Dodgers fell into fourth place this week and entered the weekend 30-34, nine games behind the Diamondbacks in the National League West. They are 9-5 when Kevin Brown starts, 21-29 when anyone else takes the mound.

Manager Davey Johnson tried to shake up his club by benching catcher Todd Hundley, who was hitting .230 and had thrown out 7 of 60 base stealers. Hundley was replaced temporarily by rookie Angel Pena, whose arm may not be much better. Meanwhile, Hundley will get some tutoring from bullpen coach Rick Dempsey.

"I'll use him as I would a backup," Johnson said. "But he's not really a backup. He's in rehab, for me. Hopefully this will give him the time to get better. I like having him here to work with Dempsey."

Hundley was one of new general manager Kevin Malone's most important offseason acquisitions. He's making $5.2 million this season and is guaranteed $6 million next season.

Johnson also dropped Darren Dreifort (5-5, 6.42 earned run average) from the rotation and gave his spot to rookie Jamie Arnold. If Johnson had a replacement for Carlos Perez (2-8, 7.38), he would send Perez to the bullpen as well.

After signing Brown, running up the game's highest payroll and all but declaring themselves pennant winners, the Dodgers are having a tough time.

"I'm at my wit's end," Malone said. "We're going to continue to evaluate everything and do whatever it takes to get this thing turned around. It's disappointing. It's frustrating. When you see the talent we've got and don't see the performance that equates to that talent, it's puzzling."

Outfielder Gary Sheffield took a shot at Malone this week, saying the pitching staff looked strong until Dave Mlicki was traded to Detroit.

Fab 50

Happy birthday to Giants Manager Dusty Baker, who got emotional this week when his players presented him with a Rolex watch on his 50th. The watch included an inscription congratulating him on winning his 500th game as a manager. "That's what really makes you feel you might be doing something right," Baker said. "You just appreciate the guys you have here."

Nomo Haunts Cubs

The Cubs got a firsthand look at one of their mistakes when Hideo Nomo went seven innings and allowed two runs for the Brewers in an 11-4 victory over Chicago on Wednesday. Nomo had been signed by the Cubs after being released by the Mets, but after three starts at Class AAA Iowa, he believed he was ready for the big leagues. The Cubs asked him to make another minor league start, and Nomo declined. In doing so, he turned down a possible $2.8 million from the Cubs to make $200,000 from the Brewers. He's 4-1 for Milwaukee, and in eight starts, has allowed more than two runs twice.

When normally unflappable Cubs manager Jim Riggleman was asked about Nomo this week, he told a Japanese reporter: "How would you like to eat that microphone?"

Lima Makes Several Pitches

Last Saturday, Astros right-handed pitcher Jose Lima took his campaign to start the All-Star Game for the National League directly to Padres Manager Bruce Bochy, who will make the decision. Against the Padres, Lima struck out a season-high 10 batters and allowed six hits in eight innings of a 3-2 victory. He left the field to a standing ovation and is first in the National League in victories (11), tied for second in ERA (2.96), third in innings pitched (103B) and third with 1.65 walks per nine innings. He has made some enemies with his showboating on the mound, but no one argues with the results.

"I hate watching him pitch when he does his antics, but I've talked to guys like Barry Bonds, and they understand that he's having fun," teammate Billy Wagner said. "I wouldn't do it, but he's having fun, and he's backing it up."

Safe for Practice

The Mariners won't move into Safeco Field for another month, but six players, including Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, took a round of batting practice there last week. While they all say the place is beautiful, they also say it may not be a hitter's paradise. "There is a dull spot, not dead, but a dull spot from right-center to left-center," batting coach Jesse Barfield said. "You really have to hit it there."

Outfielder Jay Buhner said of the retractable-roof facility: "I loved it. It's going to be cold, but I tell you what, it's outdoors the way baseball is supposed to be. It really and truly is going to be an unbelievable park. Aesthetically, it's a beautiful place. There's not a bad seat in the park. The suites are unbelievable. We got a real feel for what it's going to be like."

Most Valuable Indians

Send in those American League MVP ballots today. Manny Ramirez entered the weekend with 78 RBI in 60 games. He was hitting .343 with 18 home runs and was well on his way to becoming the first Cleveland player to win the MVP award since Al Rosen in 1953.

Indians leadoff man Kenny Lofton is going to get some MVP votes as well. He entered the weekend with a .456 on-base percentage and a major league-leading 65 runs.

Two Decades of Hargrove

Mike Hargrove celebrated 20 years with the Indians this week. He was traded to Cleveland by the Padres in exchange for outfielder Paul Dade. After a 6A-year playing career, he worked as a minor league manager and coach. He has been the big league manager since July 6, 1991, winning 667 and losing 547 through Friday. If the Indians win 105 games, he would become the winningest manager in franchise history, surpassing Lou Boudreau (728-649).

Mateo's Big-League Moves

One of baseball's most heralded prospects made his big league debut this week when the Rangers called up center fielder Ruben Mateo. General Manager Doug Melvin had planned to promote Mateo in the second half of the season, but made the move early when Tom Goodwin got hurt. At the time of his recall, Mateo ranked among the Pacific Coast League's top five in batting average, home runs and RBI. Last Saturday, he hammered a 420-foot home run off Colorado's Pedro Astacio in his third major league at-bat. He had an RBI double against Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez on Wednesday.

"He looks like he's been here for some time," Manager Johnny Oates said. "I'm very impressed."

Trade Talk

Don't be surprised if the Rockies listen to offers for Darryl Kile before the trading deadline. Given the lack of quality pitching in the majors, the Rockies could almost name their price for someone who once was one of the NL's dominant starters. Also, the Rockies finally may have to realize he can't thrive at Coors Field.

Since signing a three-year, $24 million contract 18 months ago, he has won just six times at home while compiling a 6.46 ERA. He's only 11-11 on the road, but has a more respectable 4.19 ERA. Some scouts believe returning to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark would reignite the Darryl Kile who went 19-7 and pitched 255 innings for Houston in 1997.

Trade Talk II

Blue Jays left-hander David Wells also probably will be traded, and the Reds are among the interested teams. "We have the team to win our division or the wild card if we can add a starting pitcher or two," Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said. "We're really more interested in young pitchers that we can keep and build with, and Toronto has four or five of them. I'd think the situation they are in, they have to try to do something."

The Reds left spring training projecting their rotation as Denny Neagle, Pete Harnisch, Brett Tomko, Steve Avery and Jason Bere. Here's how it has worked out: Neagle is on the disabled list with a weak shoulder and an 0-3 record. Tomko is 2-4 and just back from a demotion to the minors. Avery is 3-6 and hasn't made it past the second inning in three of his past four starts. Bere is 3-0 and on the disabled list with a sore elbow. Only Harnisch, who is 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA, has pitched decently.

But the Reds have been saved by a bullpen that leads the National League in wins (16) and ERA (2.74).

BY THE NUMBERS

200 San Diego's Trevor Hoffman this week became the 25th player to reach the 200-save milestone.

7 The Cardinals have given up seven runs or more in 22 of their 64 games.

1.71 The earned run average of the Mets' Al Leiter over his previous 21 innings. Prior to that the left- hander had accumulated a 6.38 ERA through 62 innings pitched.

.512 Seattle's slugging percentage. The major league record is .489, by the 1927 Yankees. This year's Cleveland Indians are also on pace to break the record, with a .495 percentage.

35 The number of stolen bases for the Mets' Roger Cedeno, a throw-in in last winter's three-team deal that sent Cedeno from the Dodgers to the Mets, Armando Benitez from the Orioles to the Mets, Todd Hundley from the Mets to the Dodgers and Charles Johnson from the Dodgers to the Orioles. Cedeno's major league-leading total is more than Milwaukee, Colorado, the Chicago Cubs, Florida, Baltimore, Anaheim and Oakland.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Matchups to Watch

Reds at Astros

Thursday through Sunday

The NL Central's top two teams meet. Houston has been led by the pitching duo of Jose Lima and Mike Hampton (8-2, 3.08) and by triple-crown threat Jeff Bagwell, who entered the weekend hitting .338 (8th in the NL), with 22 home runs (tied for 1st) and 60 RBI (2nd). Surprising Cincinnati has been powered not, as expected, by former San Diego slugger Greg Vaughn but by first baseman Sean Casey, the league's leading hitter. Casey, acquired from Cleveland in a trade for pitcher Dave Burba one day before the start of the 1998 season, is batting .378 in his second full season.

Mets at Braves

Friday through Sunday

TV: Friday, 7:30; Saturday, 7; Sunday, 1, TBS

Starting pitching will go a long way toward determining whether the second-place Mets can use this series to close on the Braves in the National League East. Even at an un-Braves-like 4.22 through Friday, the earned run average of Atlanta's starting pitchers was more than a full run lower than that of the Mets (5.26). N.Y. catcher Mike Piazza recently has started to appease the Shea Stadium boo-birds, hitting .330.

Red Sox at Orioles

Tuesday-Thursday

The teams' first meeting of the season, and it appears the Orioles will not have to face Pedro Martinez.

Yankees at Orioles

Friday-Sunday

The American League East-leading Yankees are 26-16 in regular season games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

CAPTION: Kevin Brown's body language says it all for disappointing Dodgers, who fell to fourth place last week.

CAPTION: Reds have a slugging surprise in Sean Casey, who is batting a league-leading .378.