Almost four months later, Mike Venafro still smiles as he remembers walking from the bullpen for his first major league appearance. He remembers not being able to get the smile off his face when Rangers Manager Johnny Oates handed him the ball. He remembers feeling a dozen emotions, from nervousness and fear to the thought that his time finally had come. He knew his friends and family in Northern Virginia would be thrilled.

"The whole experience was just so overwhelming," he said. "It was the start of what I hoped would be a career. All you ask for is a chance. This was my chance."

Venafro, 25, made the most of it by pitching one shutout inning against the Twins that day. Five days later, he pitched four perfect innings against the Yankees.

"He just sailed right through them," Oates said.

These days, he's part of one of baseball's best bullpens and a reason the Rangers entered the weekend with a nine-game lead in the American League West. They're built not on starting pitching like many other top teams, but on a good offense and a bullpen that has the AL's second-best ERA at 3.68.

Closer John Wetteland leads the majors with 31 saves, and rookie Jeff Zimmerman (8-0, 0.75 ERA) may ride an unhittable slider to a rookie of the year award.

Then there's Venafro, the left-hander with the funky sidearm delivery and wicked sinker. He entered the weekend with a 3-1 record and a 2.83 ERA, having established himself as the person who gets the ball before Zimmerman when the Rangers are protecting a lead.

Few would have predicted this kind of success for Venafro when no college came knocking after he graduated from Paul VI High School in Fairfax. He made the team at James Madison, but didn't pitch much until his senior season, when he appeared in a school-record 29 games.

"I think they decided to give the senior lefty a chance," he said.

Venafro had planned to pursue a masters degree in economics, but when the Rangers used a 29th-round draft pick on him, he decided to give baseball one last chance. He had four unspectacular seasons in the minors, and reviews on him within the organization were mixed as late as last fall, when he was sent to the Arizona Instructional League.

One problem was his delivery. Venafro was throwing from a variety of angles and having a variety of results. Oates advised him to try using only the sidearm delivery.

"Somewhere, he had gotten the idea that his sidearm stuff wasn't good enough to win at the big league level," Oates said. "I told him there have been a lot of successful big league pitchers throw from down there--Gene Garber and Dan Quisenberry, to name two. He was concerned about throwing his breaking ball from that angle. I tried to share some things with him about just changing speeds and keeping the ball low. His ball really sinks, and that's a valuable commodity. There aren't many ground-ball pitchers in the major leagues now. The last time I looked, he was leading American League relievers in ground-ball outs. I also think he's a little faster than people think. He's sneaky fast."

Venafro and Zimmerman have transformed a weakness into a strength for the Rangers, who believe they have a decent chance of beating the Indians or Yankees in the playoffs.

"I don't know where we'd be without those two guys," Oates said. "Neither one of those guys was on the Opening Day roster, and I wasn't sure when they would be. What they've done has been amazing."

Venafro and Zimmerman are roommates on the road, and there are some mornings when they wake up, remember that they're in the big leagues and start laughing. "It's been so much better than I expected," Venafro said. "And to be on a team that's winning makes it even better. I've still got a long way to go, as far as proving myself, but this is a good start.

"As far as belonging, I don't know if I'll ever feel totally comfortable. That's part of the intensity of this whole thing. There's always going to be someone coming along to take your place. That's what pushes you."

Marlins Are Prospectors

The Marlins continue to stockpile prospects, getting two more last week when they shipped overweight starting pitcher Livan Hernandez to the Giants for pitchers Jason Grilli and Nate Bump. Grilli is one of the top prospects in baseball, and the Marlins have acquired a bunch of them since dismantling the team that won the 1997 World Series.

They also have a terrific new owner in John Henry, but until they get a new stadium or move to a better market, those prospects aren't going to turn around the Marlins.

As for the Giants, Hernandez gives them a 24-year-old right-hander who has lost some velocity off what was once a blazing fastball. He won just 15 of his last 58 starts in Florida, and the Giants clocked his fastball at between 89 mph and 91 mph during his first start.

"We remember him a couple of miles per hour quicker," Manager Dusty Baker said. "We also knew when we got him that he had games that might've taken something out of him. He was throwing 140, 145, 150 pitches a game."

Baker will attempt to limit Hernandez to about 125 pitches.

Look Out, Mr. Lee

The Diamondbacks brought up first baseman Erubiel Durazo from Class AAA Tucson, an indication that they're running out of patience with slumping Travis Lee. He entered the weekend hitless in his past 23 at-bats, and Manager Buck Showalter spoke of "letting Travis clear his head for a couple of days." After winning the National League rookie of the year award last season, Lee is hitting .242 and hasn't homered since June 7. Durazo put up huge numbers at both Class AA El Paso (.403, 14 homers, 55 RBI) and Tucson (.407, 10 homers, 28 RBI in 30 games).

Counting Pennies

The Rockies were prepared to send pitcher Darryl Kile and outfielder Darryl Hamilton to the Brewers for pitcher Scott Karl and outfielder Marquis Grissom, but Milwaukee officials killed the deal because it would have added $2.9 million to their payroll next season. Hamilton then was traded to the New York Mets last night.

The Brewers are being careful about adding to their payroll because their new stadium may not be ready for Opening Day after a crane accident collapsed part of the retractable roof structure. Some estimates are that the stadium won't be ready until next season's all-star break.

Padres Think Defensively

The Padres won't be back in the playoffs, but their youth movement has discovered a pair of budding stars--center fielder Ruben Rivera and catcher Ben Davis. "Ben has to be as good defensively, if not better, than anybody in the National League," Padres coach Davey Lopes said. "The only one who is better defensively in the National League than Ruben is Andruw Jones. I hate to use the word potential, but they have unlimited potential."

Lopes compared Rivera to former Gold Glove winner Steve Finley, saying: "He can do some things out there that even Finley doesn't. And I have the utmost respect for Steve Finley."

Diamond in the Rough

Phillies right-handed pitcher Steve Schrenk spent 13 seasons in the minors before being called up four weeks ago. When a sore shoulder forced Curt Schilling to miss a start against the Marlins on Wednesday, Schrenk stepped in and pitched six shutout innings to get a victory in his first big league start.

"I'm ecstatic," he said after the game. "I'm on top of the world."

Originally signed by the White Sox, Schrenk was sidelined by a shoulder injury that got him released. Phillies Manager Terry Francona remembered him from when both were in Class AA Birmingham, and when Schrenk was let go, Francona encouraged the Phillies to sign him.

Schrenk began the season making $8,500 a month at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but eventually became the fourth Phillies pitcher to make his first major league start this season. Anthony Shumaker, Randy Wolf, Joel Bennett and Schrenk have compiled a 1.46 ERA as starters.

Hello, Bud

Commissioner Bud Selig celebrated his 65th birthday on Friday. "My first call was from Robin Yount wishing me happy birthday," Selig said. "That tells you what kind of guy he is."

Uniform Anger

Juan Gonzalez infuriated the Rangers by refusing to play in the Hall of Fame exhibition game Monday in Cooperstown, N.Y. In honor of Nolan Ryan, the Rangers were wearing uniforms similar to the ones they wore in 1993. But Gonzalez refused to put on his, complaining the pants were too baggy.

Gonzalez has sulked during the past month, but until this week, the Rangers had declined to criticize him publicly.

He remains one of baseball's top run producers, but at a time when it would take a deal worth $15 million a season to extend his contract, the Rangers may be wondering if he's worth the trouble.

"It didn't help his image," Manager Johnny Oates said after the Hall of Fame game. "I think the way his teammates look at him, Juan needs to do everything he can to be a part of the club."

Second baseman Mark McLemore said: "Juan can make it difficult at times. At times, it becomes harder for some of us to keep focused on what we're out there to do every day. Every day. Not five out of every seven or six out of every seven, but every day."

THE WEEK AHEAD

Matchups to Watch

San Francisco at Arizona

Monday through Wednesday

Before the season, it was widely thought a matchup between the two top teams in the NL West would feature Colorado and Los Angeles. Instead here are the Giants and Diamondbacks, two of the biggest surprises in the league, in what will be their second-to-last head-to-head series of the season. Luckily for the Giants they will miss Randy Johnson's turn in the rotation, although they will see another Arizona lefty, Omar Daal, who is 7-1 in his last 13 starts and 10-5 overall. San Francisco right fielder Ellis Burks has hit 11 home runs since coming off the disabled list on June 26.

Toronto at New York

Monday through Wednesday

The surging Blue Jays, who won 9 of 10 and 20 of 25 prior to a two-game sweep by Boston last week, will try to enhance their wild card credentials, or perhaps even their division-winning credentials, in Yankee Stadium. New York center fielder Bernie Williams and Toronto right fielder Shawn Green are among the league leaders in hitting.

Cleveland at Boston

Monday through Wednesday

This series could be a preview of the first round of the AL playoffs, assuming the Indians hold on to their lead in the Central Division and ends up with the league's best record, and Boston edges out Toronto and Oakland for the wild card. Boston has won five of six meetings with the Indians this season, including a three-game sweep at Jacobs Field in May. The eyes of Red Sox fans will be on Pedro Martinez Tuesday night, when he is scheduled to make his return to the mound from the disabled list. In two starts against Cleveland this season, Martinez is 2-0 with a 2.11 earned run average and 19 strikeouts.

BY THE NUMBERS

6 Arizona's Andy Benes hit the sixth home run of his career last week. He's one behind Dwight Gooden, who leads all active pitchers.

10-5 Colorado's Pedro Astacio is 10-5 since April 30, and has pitched at least seven innings in 12 of 18 starts.

12 The Pirates have a club-record 12 players on the disabled list.

256 Mark McGwire has 256 homers in the past five seasons, tying him with Babe Ruth (1926 to 1930) for most homers hit in a five-year stretch.

50 The Phillies are the only National League team with six players who have at least 50 RBI.