Jim "Catfish" Hunter was said to be slowly improving yesterday, although his condition still was listed as critical, five days after hitting his head on concrete steps at his home.

Hospital officials said Hunter, 53, remained in the intensive care unit in Greenville, N.C. A statement issued yesterday by Hunter's family said the Hall of Fame pitcher was conscious and responding to doctors and family members.

"We continue to be quite hopeful and optimistic that Jimmy will recover and be back home in Hertford very soon," said the family minister, Keith Vaughan, in the statement.

Hunter, who retired in 1979 to his Hertford farm after 15 years in the majors and five World Series rings, had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's disease, a gradual, irreversible deterioration of the muscles -- diagnosed last year.

OUT FOR A START: Blue Jays LHP David Wells was scratched from his start last night because of a stiff back.

Wells, who struggled with back problems during spring training, said his back stiffened up Thursday.

INJURED: The Angels, devastated by injuries all season, placed OF Darin Erstad (.246, 10 HR, 37 RBI) on the 15-day disabled list with a strained ligament in his right knee. IF Andy Sheets was recalled from Class AAA Edmonton.