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When you're on Lima Time, the Kansas City Royals are learning, every hour is Happy Hour. Every base hit, every runner moved over—heck, every two-strike foul ball—is cause for a bellow or chirp from the dugout's top step, and every fifth day the pitcher's mound is home to the stylings of the indefatigable Jos� Lima, back from the baseball dead. "I'm still here," he says. "I'm not going nowhere. There's a lot of Jos� Lima left."
Typically demonstrative on Sunday afternoon at Detroit's Comerica Park, the 30-year-old righthander threw five shutout innings in a 5-1 win over the Tigers, lifting his record to 7-0 while lowering his ERA to 2.17. Since Lima joined the team on June 15, the Royals had gone 24-14 by week's end and rallied from a five-game deficit to a 4�-game lead in the AL Central. With Lima starring in the latest scenes of this midsummer theater of the absurd, the nondescript Royals stood poised to pull off the greatest encore to a 100-loss season in history (chart, page 53). "We just seem to know we're going to win somehow, some way," says leftfielder Raul Iba�ez, tied for the team lead in homers (14) with centerfielder Carlos Beltran. "Something will happen, someone will throw a ball away, whatever. We're doing the stuff that I've watched the good teams do to us."
Despite the brevity of his sojourn with Kansas City, Lima has come to symbolize the club's renaissance. After a lousy, acrimonious season with the Tigers—used sporadically, he was 4-6 with a 7.77 ERA and opined that Detroit "stinks from the front office right on down" after he was bounced from the starting rotation in September—the former 21-game winner was released. A back strain curtailed his winter ball season in his native Dominican Republic, and when spring training began he couldn't wrangle even a nonroster invitation to a big league camp. He was adrift in baseball limbo. Lima believes he was blackballed because Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski labeled him a clubhouse cancer, both in conversations with fellow executives and in a letter to MLB headquarters. ( Dombrowski denies the allegations.) "I thought I was going to get a job right away" Lima says. "[But] no minor league deal. Nobody wanted my services. 'We're not interested. We've got plenty of talent.' Something was said, and I know who said it."
As March gave way to April, Lima, still unemployed, pondered retiring or globetrotting to the Japanese or Korean leagues before he got his first bite: Joe Klein, the former Tigers CM. who's now the executive director of the independent Atlantic League, offered Lima a $3,000-a-month gig with the Newark Bears. ("My phone bill's higher than that," Lima says.) Chastened but still possessed of his bottomless optimism, Lima accepted and immersed himself in the farmhand's life. "He never asked for special treatment," says Bears manager Bill Madlock. "He worked hard, showed up early and did his running, threw on the side, and he really took care of the kids on the team. They don't eat the same since he left."
That's because Lima and fellow Bear Rickey Henderson, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, routinely handed their paychecks to clubhouse attendants to cover postgame spreads, getting deliveries Outback Steakhouse instead of the usual cold cut platters. When Newark played the Pennsylvania Road Warriors, a quasi-barnstorming team without a home ballpark, Lima paid for their spread too. On days he didn't pitch, Lima coached first base and tossed so many balls into the crowd that the cash-strapped club had to remind him that there was a $20 fine for doing so.
Lima quickly regained the stuff that had made him an All-Star with the Houston Astros in 1999. Always a two-pitch pitcher who approached hitters "backward" (that is, throwing his changeup instead of his fastball in hitter's counts), Lima had lost so much velocity on his four-seamer that the two pitches became nearly indistinguishable and fooled no one. But with regular work and by tweaking his windup—he now brings his left leg toward second base as he pivots on his right foot, rather than opening it up toward third—Lima nudged his fastball back into the low 90s. His bravado returned too. "He pitched against Long Island, middle of May, and somebody hit a home run off him, and you heard 'Big league, my ass' from their dugout," Klein says. "Jos� came back and struck out something like five of the last seven he faced, including the guy who said it. That's when I knew it was just a matter of time."
Facing imminent DL trips by starters Miguel Asencio and Runelvys Hernandez, the Royals came knocking. On Klein's recommendation to his longtime friend Art Stewart, general manager Allard Baird's senior adviser, Kansas City inked Lima, sight unseen, for the major league minimum. Says Baird, "We thought, Let's at least get an innings guy" By reeling off a seven-game winning streak and holding opponents to a .197 batting average, Lima showed he was much more. Still blessed with pinpoint control and equipped with a new slider, taught to him by Royals pitching coach John Cumberland, Lima has become a more well-rounded pitcher. "He's putting the ball where he wants to," says catcher Brent Mayne. "Opponents aren't really getting much to hit."
Lima's unconventional path back to the majors underscores not only the constitution of this first-place team, but also the success of the often-maligned Baird, who is still remembered for trading Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez. Limited by a $40.8 million payroll, the game's second-lowest, Baird has expertly trolled backwoods leagues and castoff piles to construct his roster. In addition to Lima, there's lefthander Darrell May (5-4 with a 3.33 ERA in a team-high 127 innings at week's end), signed in 2001 from Yomiuri of the Japan Central League, and rightfielder and leadoff hitter Aaron Guiel (nine homers, .941 OPS since his May 28 callup), plucked in '00 from Oaxaca of the Mexican League. Asencio, one of the organization's best pitching prospects, and righthander D.J. Carrasco, a bullpen workhorse with a 3.93 ERA in 50? innings, are both Rule 5 draftees.
Credit for their artful use, however, goes to skipper Tony Pe�a. "You have to have a manager who is willing to put that Rule 5 guy in a pressure situation," Baird says. "In our market size, to make it work, it has to be that way." Pe�a constantly says that he's comfortable using any member of his 25-man roster in any situation, and the results have borne him out. Pe�a has trotted out 10 starting pitchers, and they'd gone a combined 37-27 with a 4.46 ERA through Sunday.
Lightly regarded minor leaguer Angel Berroa, whose listed age went from 22 to 25 during the imbroglio over the birthdates of Dominican players last year, earned the Opening Day shortstop assignment, and at week's end was hitting .289 with 13 home runs at the position Perez had turned into an offensive sinkhole. When All-Star first baseman Mike Sweeney was lost to upper back stiffness on June 19, Pe�a inserted Ken Harvey, who'd hit .244 in his 57 major league games; Harvey has hit .284 since.