When it comes to first-half surprises, no one in baseball takes a back seat to Rangers 27-year-old rookie reliever Jeff Zimmerman. He's two years removed from pitching in the independent Northern League and is only the fifth player to become an all-star after starting the season in the minors.

"We would not be in first place without Jeff Zimmerman," Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said.

As the weekend began, Zimmerman was 8-0 with a 0.89 ERA. He's so important because he has bridged the gap between an average starting rotation and a terrific closer, John Wetteland. He began the weekend having pitched at least two innings in 13 appearances, and the Rangers are 22-2 when he precedes fellow all-star Wetteland in a game.

"He might be the most valuable player on our team," Rangers Manager Johnny Oates said. "I've just run out of ways to describe what he has meant to this team."

After pitching at TCU, he was undrafted. He pitched in France, then for Winnipeg of the Northern League in 1997. He sent a letter to each team asking for a tryout, and only the Rangers responded. Why? Because they had a work visa they could spare.

Scouts say his slider is one of the best in the game, and his control is superb. "I can't say this is a dream come true, because I never dreamed of making an all-star team," he said. "To me, making the majors was a dream come true. And helping this team win is a dream come true."

In a season of thrills, Zimmerman got another last week when he pitched against his 24-year-old brother, Jordan, who is a reliever with the Mariners. "It's actually easier being on opposite teams," Jeff said. "When we were on the same team, I'd be so nervous for him, I'd actually shake."

Finding His Place

Zimmerman may be the best rags-to-riches story of the 70th All-Star Game in Boston Tuesday, but he's certainly not the only one. There's another in St. Louis. His name is Kent Bottenfield (13-3, 3.82). He's 6 feet 3, 225 pounds and looks a little like one of your bowling teammates. Until this season, he'd won 18 big league games since making his debut with the Expos seven years ago. He has also spent time with the Giants, Rockies, Tigers, Cubs and Cardinals. He has spent all or part of 12 seasons in the minor leagues. He went 3-17 at Jacksonville in 1989 and had to be talked out of quitting midway through the 1995 season. He's 30 years old.

And this season, he's an all-star.

Bottenfield has become the anchor of the Cardinals' rotation, having won 11 of his 13 games after losses. The Cardinals have had six losing streaks of three games, and Bottenfield has stopped four of them. Bottenfield is the only St. Louis starter with an ERA of under 5.10.

Big Byrd

Phillies right-hander Paul Byrd has also had a strange ride to the All-Star Game. Waived by the Braves last August, the Phillies claimed him and stuck him in their rotation. Until this season, he'd won a total of 12 big league games. This season, he's 11-4 with a 3.72 ERA and has pitched at least six innings and allowed no more than three runs in 12 of his 17 starts.

"Coming into the season, I just wanted to hold down a starting job in the big leagues," Byrd said. "Last year at one point I didn't really even have a job. I was told politely by the Braves I wasn't needed anymore."

Phillies Manager Terry Francona said Byrd "might be the best story in baseball this year. I wish we could pound our chests and say what great baseball men we are for finding him. But we didn't know. We just gave him the ball. And he took advantage of it."

Curt Schilling added: "He's renamed the waiver wire acquisition. Now everybody is hoping to pluck a Byrd off the waiver wire."

Losing Heart and Soul

That the Pirates have remained competitive is remarkable considering their injury situation. They began the weekend with 11 players on the disabled list, including shortstop Pat Meares and closer Mike Williams. Now, they've lost their best offensive player for the season.

Catcher Jason Kendall suffered a gruesome injury to his right ankle last Sunday and should be ready for the start of spring training. He went down at a time when he was on his way to making the National League all-star team for a third straight season with a .332 batting average and 22 stolen bases. He's also one of the good guys in the game and someone who had helped restore respectability to the Pirates.

"Jason is kind of the heart and soul of our ballclub," Manager Gene Lamont said. "To see him go down like that is very hard to take. It's tough, very tough."

Kendall dislocated his right ankle when he stepped awkwardly on first base while legging out an infield grounder. "The fibula was sticking four to five inches out of the skin," Pirates trainer Kent Biggerstaff said. Surgery to repair the injury was successful, but Kendall faces a long rehabilitation.

Pirates General Manager Cam Bonifay said: "My initial reaction when I saw the play and Jason go down was to get sick to my stomach. Then, a lot of things flashed through my mind. I thought about how much he means to this club both offensively and defensively. I thought about what he means to this club in the clubhouse. He's a very important member of this club and we're going to miss him dearly."

Pirates backup catcher Keith Osik will take over for Kendall. "I consider Keith the best backup catcher in the league and this is going to be a big chance for him to prove what he can do on a regular basis," Lamont said.

Nice Pickup

Teams such as the Pirates and A's survive because they do a wonderful job of drafting and developing players. And also because they do a good job signing the veteran free agents who've fallen through the cracks.

One of those is third baseman Ed Sprague, who spent the final month of last season watching the A's audition young Eric Chavez. When Sprague became a free agent, his phone didn't ring very often, and he wound up taking a pay cut from $2.35 million in Oakland to $1 million with the Pirates.

Sprague, 31, has played so well that he was named to the National League all-star team last week, and it's unlikely there will be a happier member of the squad. He began the weekend hitting .301 with 15 homers and 49 RBI.

"This is very gratifying," he said. "I went through a tough time last year and when I went out into the free agent market there wasn't a whole lot of interest. But I always believed I could still play. I know some people thought I had reached the point in my career where maybe I shouldn't be a regular any more. But I really believed if I got the chance to play on a regular basis at third that I would prove to everyone that I could be a productive player. That's why I'm thankful to the Pirates."

No Yen for Japan

Baseball's idea of having the Cardinals and Mets open the 2000 season in Japan drew a chilly reception from some of the most prominent players. "I'm absolutely against it," Mark McGwire said. "Major league baseball belongs in the United States. The Japanese have Japanese baseball so there's no reason for us to go over there. I have nothing against the way they play baseball. It's not the travel. As a player, I just don't like it. The game belongs here."

Teams have opened the regular season in neutral sites in three of the last four seasons, including this year, when the Padres and Rockies played one game in Mexico. The Padres and Cardinals played a three-game series in Hawaii in 1997, and the Padres and Mets played in Monterrey in 1996.

Players have been told that they will not be forced to go to the games if a deal is signed by the commissioner's office, players association and a Japanese promoter. But they're being urged to go and will be compensated for the extra travel. "Individual players are going to have individual concerns," a source told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But it would be in the best interests of the players collectively. There are some players who probably don't think salary arbitration is a good idea. We don't expect unanimity." Players may be asked to vote on the matter after some gentle persuasion from their union leaders.

Diamondback in the Buff

The full monty? Diamondbacks pitcher Brian Anderson was locked out of his Cincinnati hotel room while sleep-walking at 4:30 a.m. last week. Guess what he was wearing? Nothing.

"I guess as soon as the door closed behind me, I woke up," Anderson said. "Because I looked around and said, `What am I doing out here?' I went down the hallway to the elevators looking for one of those house phones, but there was none. I started to panic. . . . I went down two floors and saw a USA Today and grabbed a couple of sections and put one in front of me and the other behind me you know where."

Anderson got back into his room after a custodian phoned security, who sent a guy up to open his room. He has had this kind of trouble before. Last season, he burned his cheek while checking to see if his iron was hot.

Finding a Way

The Braves have remained atop the National League East even though first baseman Andres Galarraga and closer Kerry Ligtenberg have missed the entire season; Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were a combined 7-9 the first two months of the season; John Smoltz made two trips to the disabled list; and catcher Javy Lopez is sidelined with a knee injury. The Braves prove almost every day that the good teams still find a way. In times of trouble, the Braves did what they almost always do: they turned to the best player development system and found a closer (John Rocker), an anchor for the starting rotation (Kevin Millwood) and a first baseman (Randall Simon). If Lopez needs surgery, the Braves will have to trade for a catcher. Even with Lopez, the Braves were in the bottom half of the NL in runs. Without him, they may not hold off the Mets.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Matchup to Watch

National League All-Stars vs. American League All-Stars

Tuesday night, Fenway Park, Boston

TV: 8 p.m., WTTG-5, WBFF-45

Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox will start for the AL all-stars in his home park, where he has picked up nine of his 15 victories and carries a 1.80 earned run average this season. The AL has won six of nine all-star games in the 1990s, including the past two games. Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken will start for the AL, and teammate B.J. Surhoff will be making his first all-star appearance. For the NL, Randy Johnson will be making his sixth all-star appearance, but first as a National Leaguer. NL starters Mark McGwire and Barry Larkin will be playing in their 11th and 10th games, respectively.

BY THE NUMBERS

The Marlins have had eight rain delays and two rainouts in their last 20 home games.

Temperature on the field was 161 degrees when the Cubs and Phillies played at the Vet on the Fourth of July.

The Expos sold 386,695 tickets for their first 44 home games. That's an average of 8,789 and is 90,426 fewer than at this time last season when they went on to draw just 914,717 fans. No other major league team failed to draw 1 million fans last season.

The Phillies have two all-star pitchers (Curt Schilling and Paul Byrd) for the first time since 1981, when Steve Carlton and Dick Ruthven were selected.

The Indians have twice overcome eight-run deficits to win games.

Dwight Gooden has won just two of his last 17 starts. He has been dropped from the Cleveland rotation and replaced by Tom Candiotti.

Six current Indians and seven former Indians made the all-star teams. The current Indians are Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy and Jim Thome. The former Indians are Tony Fernandez, Jay Bell, Matt Williams, Paul Byrd, Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz and Jeff Kent.

The Red Sox have scored three runs in Pedro Martinez's three losses.

Jose Canseco is going back to the all-star game for the first time since 1992. That's the longest drought between all-star appearances since the current voting system was implemented in 1970.

THE MIDSEASON AWARDS

American League

Most valuable player Manny Ramirez, Indians

Cy Young award Pedro Martinez, Red Sox

Rookie of the year Jeff Zimmerman, Rangers

Manager of the year Mike Hargrove, Indians

National League

Most valuable player Jeff Bagwell, Astros

Cy Young award Jose Lima, Astros

Rookie of the year Scott Williamson, Reds

Manager of the year Dusty Baker, Giants

CAPTION: Rangers rookie Jeff Zimmerman, 27, was pitching in the independent Northern League in 1997.