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A new century for Sox, Cubs?

It's something that happens only once a century. But maybe in Year 3 of the 21st century, the Cubs and Red Sox will meet again in a World Series for the ages. 1908 vs. 1918. Wrigley Field vs. Fenway Park. The Monster vs. The Ivy. The Curse of the Bambino vs. the Curse of the Billy Goat. The team of Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived, against the team of Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub. Pedro vs. Sammy. Manny vs. Moises. Byung Hyun Kim vs. Hee Seop Choi. The Dirt Dogs vs. Dusty. The return of Wendell Kim. The possibilities are endless. And not so far-fetched.

While the Sox pursue the Yankees and maintain a slim lead in the wild-card race, the Cubs, winners of three of four from the Astros last week, briefly overtook the Texas Sons of Jimy Williams after beating the Dodgers Friday before losing yesterday to fall a half-game back in the National League Central. The Cardinals are a game behind and are getting a Yazlike year from Albert Pujols, whose bid for a Triple Crown also has morphed into a hitting streak that reached 30 games last night when he singled in the seventh inning of a 5-4 loss to the Phillies.

While the Astros have one ace, Roy Oswalt, injured (groin) and the other, Wade Miller, struggling, and the Cardinals' ace, Matt Morris, was having an off season even before fracturing his right hand, the Cubs have emerged with the strongest pitching in the division. Kerry Wood lasted only 2 2/3 innings in yesterday's loss, his shortest outing since September 2000, but he became the fastest pitcher to reach 1,000 strikeouts (surpassing Roger Clemens) this season, and leads the National League in K's. Second-year pitcher Mark Prior ranks third in K's after throwing his third complete game in Friday's 2-1 win, and Carlos Zambrano is 5-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA since the All-Star break.

"This is a staff that can take us to the promised land, and I think it's going to happen," said Kenny Lofton, the center fielder general manager Jim Hendry acquired from Pittsburgh after young star Corey Patterson suffered a season-ending injury. "Our bats are going to come around, and they know it. We're going to score some runs sooner or later."

Hendry, who also picked up third baseman Aramis Ramirez in the Lofton deal, tried to add first baseman Rafael Palmeiro from the Rangers to platoon with Eric Karros, but Palmeiro, who has a no-trade clause, twice rejected a deal. Yesterday Hendry secured first baseman Randall Simon from the Pirates. He also is trying to add another second baseman after regular Mark Grudzielanek fractured a bone in his hand and was lost to the club for a month.

But if the Cubs are to win the Central, almost everyone thinks it will be their pitching that gets them there.

"They have so many healthy arms," said Astros outfielder Craig Biggio last week. "Not just starters, but guys from the bullpen, too. Guys who can come in and throw 96 or 97 m.p.h. Velocity makes up for a lot at this time of year, especially with the wind blowing in.

"We respect the Cubs. This division is going to go down to the last weekend, and the Cubs are a big reason. We're not surprised they're still up there. They have great young arms and some hitting. We saw that today with [Moises] Alou. We had him for four years and know what he can do."

The schedule appears to favor the Cubs. Their final 22 games are against Milwaukee, Montreal, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and the Mets. Of those, only the Expos have a winning record.

Rifle brigade

Stan Williams, the former Dodgers and Yankees pitcher, Reds pitching coach, and now scout for the Mariners, played with Carl Furillo, the Brooklyn outfielder known for his great arm. "I played with him at the end of his career, in LA, and he wasn't quite the player that he was," Williams said. "But our guy, Ichiro [Suzuki] throws better than Skoonj did." The topic came up after another memorable throw by Ichiro, who cut down Toronto's Reed Johnson as he attempted to go from first to third. The play was almost as good as the one Ichiro made last season, when he threw out Oakland's speedy Terrence Long, a throw that became a staple of highlight shows. Williams puts Ichiro in a class with such great arms as Ellis Valentine, Jesse Barfield, Raul Mondesi, and Ollie Brown ("You could sit in the dugout and hear his throws go by"), and a notch ahead of Sox right fielder Dwight Evans. "The most startling throw I ever saw," Williams said, "was by Rocky Colavito in Cleveland. He fielded a ball that hit the wall in right-center, pivoted without stopping and threw. It looked like the ball was going to hit the dirt in the infield. Instead, it seemed to take off -- whoosh -- and the catcher caught it about neck-high. That throw was never more than 10 feet off the ground. Mondesi, for getting rid of the ball quick and throwing off the wrong foot or off-balance, Mondesi is as good as I've ever seen. And believe it or not, the first time I saw [Jose] Canseco, he threw like that." One of the best shows in baseball used to be watching outfielders making throws during infield practice, but hardly anybody, with the exception of the Minnesota Twins, ever takes infield anymore. "Batting practice changed that," said former catcher Sal Butera, now scouting for Toronto. "Fans wanted to see the home runs. And a lot of guys didn't like having to get loose twice, once before batting practice, then again for infield. A lot of guys also didn't like to take infield because they were embarrassed they couldn't throw. I looked at it as a great way to showcase my arm. You knew that the day you took infield, somebody would be watching, and for players who didn't play all the time, it was a good way to show other teams what you could do. And as a catcher, I used to like to see how the ball would come into home plate."

No loss of interest

The Angels' second-half collapse hasn't hurt them at the turnstiles; they're averaging more than 40,000 fans a game since the break and slightly less than 38,000 for the season, behind only the Yankees and Mariners in the American League. The defending World Series champs, who sold a record number of season tickets last winter, are on pace to draw more than 3 million fans for the first time. No wonder new owner Arturo Moreno figured he could drop the price of a beer . . . Who could have ever predicted this: Braves catcher Javy Lopez has hit 22 home runs at home, the most in the majors. Last season he hit one in Turner Field . . . Surf's not up: After losing three of four to the Angels last week in Anaheim, the White Sox are 9-33 on the West Coast since 2001 . . . It didn't help him Friday night in Texas, where his former Ranger teammates pinned seven earned runs on him, but Estaban Loaiza credits the development of a cut fastball as the biggest reason he has gone from journeyman to Cy Young Award candidate. Loaiza said he first tried it last season at the urging of Blue Jays pitching coach Gil Patterson when he was still with Toronto. He says he throws it as much 90 percent of the time in some games. The pitch breaks in to lefthanded hitters and runs back over the plate against righties . . . Add an inflamed elbow to Billy Koch's woes. The White Sox closer went on the disabled list Tuesday, the same night A's closer Keith Foulke, who swapped places with Koch last season, rang up his 29th save against the Red Sox . . . The Reds have added seven pitchers in deals since July 29, and have two more coming as players to be named later. Cincinnati recently added two players with Red Sox connections. They signed outfielder Michael Coleman, who was hitting .320 with 23 homers and 68 RBIs for Newark in the independent Atlantic League, and the big man, Calvin Pickering, out of Mexico. Pickering spent a season on the DL with the Sox . . . Baseball Prospectus is a serious-minded contributor to coverage of the game, with lots of provocative statistical analysis at its Internet site. J.P. Ricciardi's assistant in Toronto, Keith Law, a Harvard man, wrote for the Prospectus before Ricciardi grabbed him. But it is getting hammered for its report that Major League Baseball had reached an agreement with Pete Rose to reinstate him without requiring an admission that he bet on baseball. "That was not only indefensible, it's so wrong," commissioner Bud Selig told reporters while in Boston last week for an owners meeting. "I don't even know how people justify it when they do things like that. Everybody should be offended by it. It's fiction, pure fiction that is indefensible in this case."

Buried treasure

Looking for something for the collector in the family and have a few extra bucks lying around? A wooden case of 17 gold-painted "trophy balls" traceable to the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings went up for auction last week at a minimum bid of $100,000. Experts in the field apparently were unaware that the balls were still in existence . . . Marlins pitcher Mark Redman didn't make any friends in the Phillies clubhouse when he drew attention to the fact that umpire Jim Wolf is the brother of Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf after a Marlins loss in which Jim Wolf the ump had to make calls on three close plays. "I guarantee that crosses every player's mind," Redman said of the filial connection. "You hope he doesn't [allow his family connection to influence calls], but it does cross people's minds." Phillies manager Larry Bowa called the statement "ridiculous," and Randy Wolf said he didn't know who Redman was. "It's not a big deal. It's nothing," Randy told reporters. "Anybody who knows my brother knows he's a professional and has integrity." There have been other player/umpire brother sets, including former Giants catcher Tom Haller and umpire Bill Haller . . . Bobby Jenks, the Angels' pitching prospect with the 100-mile-an-hour fastball and a series of alcohol-related disciplinary problems, is 7-1 for Double A Arkansas and working on 23 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. He has 85 strikeouts and 42 walks in 68 innings after missing two months with an elbow problem . . . Randy Johnson, pounded by the Braves in a 10-4 loss that dropped his record to 3-5: "I don't know exactly what's going on at this point. It would be one thing if my velocity wasn't there. It was more location, I guess, because everything I'm throwing at this point in my last few games, they're hitting." Johnson missed 12 weeks after knee surgery. Both Cy Young Award winners from last season -- Johnson and Oakland's Barry Zito -- have losing records this year . . . White Sox manager Jerry Manuel isn't happy about the way Frank Thomas's batting average has declined since he declared he would concentrate on hitting home runs. "It's very difficult to say, `I'm going to hit home runs,' and do it," Manuel said. "I would rather him become an RBI machine and a base-hit and doubles guy and a guy with a high on-base percentage. I think that would benefit us most." . . . Craig Biggio, who already switched positions once in his career, when he converted from catcher to second baseman, then at age 37 became a center fielder, wasn't charged with his first error until last Thursday in Wrigley Field, when he lost Sosa's fly ball in the sun. The error came in the team's 121st game . . . Jared Weaver, younger brother of Yankees pitcher Jeff Weaver, was the ace for the US entry in the Pan American Games. Weaver had a streak of 45 2/3 scoreless innings until he was beaten by Cuba, 3-1, in the gold medal game . . . Much has been made of the A's great finishes the last three years, including in this space. But they are 15-15 since the All-Star break this season, and their .251 team batting average ranks next to last in the league. That may be too weak even for their vaunted pitching staff to overcome. "Are we good enough to win? I think so," A's manager Ken Macha said. "But this thing's going down to the end. And we're going to have to battle our rear ends off. It's not like we're just going to go out there and do what we did the last three years in the second half. But is it doable? Absolutely."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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