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FALSE START FOR BRAVES ROTATION
Sure, Chris Shelton looked like Jimmie Foxx; Barry Bonds was chasing Bronson Arroyo, not Babe Ruth, in home runs (he trailed the pitcher by two at week's end); and a pair of 40-year-olds, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, had two of the top three ERAs in the NL. But the biggest surprise of the first two weeks of the season was that the Braves had the worst starting pitching in the majors. Until a John Smoltz four-hit shutout last Saturday, Atlanta starters were 0-5 with an 8.17 ERA.
Find any excuse you want: rainy conditions the first week; an adjustment from pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who left for Baltimore, to Roger McDowell; or a lack of spring work for Dominican righthander Jorge Sosa while on loan to his country for the World Baseball Classic. And with such a small sample of games, Braves starters are bound to pitch better soon. But a reliable rotation has been the foundation of Atlanta's run of 14 straight division titles, and without one the Braves are just another team. They especially need Smoltz and Tim Hudson (right) at the top of the rotation to reassert themselves. Says general manager John Schuerholz of his five starters, "It's uncharacteristic and it's surprising considering how well they pitched in spring training." He added that no changes are planned but was quick to point out, "We've never been bashful about making changes to our roster if we think they're needed."
How dominant is the Athletics' Rich Harden (left)? After three starts this year the 24-year-old righthander was 2-0 with 20 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings, holding opponents to a .194 batting average. But this report, filed by a rival advance scout, provides a more definitive explanation of his prowess: "Don't even bother sitting on his splitter or his changeup, because even if you do, you won't hit it. Try to hit his fastball. Emphasis on try."
?Over the past two years the Royals turned down several chances to acquire outfielder Alex Rios (right) and others from Toronto for injury-prone and aging DH Mike Sweeney, who hasn't played as many as 130 games in a season since 2001. Now the 6'5" Rios, 25, is growing into his power, slugging .765 over the first two weeks. Meanwhile Sweeney, 32, started 4 for 32.
?No one throws a better sinker than Brandon Webb. The Arizona righthander got 16 groundouts in eight innings last Friday, beating Houston 5-1. Over three starts his ground ball outs outnumbered his fly ball outs 39 to 12.
?The decline of righthander Javier Vazquez is a long-term trend. In his past 50 starts, for three teams combined since the 2004 All-Star break (postseason included), Vazquez is 15-21 with a 5.20 ERA. His latest club, the White Sox, has a ready-made replacement in 22-year-old righthander Brandon McCarthy, who has been outstanding in middle relief (2.00 ERA in four games).
Extra Mustard by Baseball Prospectus