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There could be a lot of No. 1s to look out for

With 40-year-old Randy Johnson achieving perfection last week and 41-year-old Roger Clemens unbeaten for nearly two months, the standard for great pitching appears to be a yellowing birth certificate that is curling at the edges. No one is more appreciative of that trend than Curt Schilling, who will be approaching his 41st birthday as a member of the Red Sox if he plays out his contract, 2007 option year included. But as much as Schilling celebrated Johnson's feat, and what it implies for all of the game's senior statesmen, he made this observation last week: "I think right now, as opposed to the last 20 years, we've seen a larger influx of young, potential No. 1 pitchers than I've seen in a long, long time."

He rattled off names: "Prior, Zambrano, Wood, Oswalt, Miller, Harden, Affeldt . . ."

And that was just off the top of his head. The man has a point. Take a look at this list of pitchers, all 28 or younger:

Tim Hudson, A's, 28

Javier Vazquez, Yankees, 27

Roy Halladay, Blue Jays, 27

Mark Prior, Cubs, 23

Kerry Wood, Cubs, 26

Josh Beckett, Marlins, 24

A.J. Burnett, Marlins, 27

Brad Penny, Marlins, 26

Roy Oswalt, Astros, 26

Wade Miller, Astros, 27

Odalis Perez, Dodgers, 26

Ben Sheets, Brewers, 25

Randy Wolf, Phillies 27

C.C. Sabathia, Indians, 23

Jeremy Bonderman, Tigers, 21

Jeremy Affeldt, Royals, 25

Mark Mulder, A's, 26

Barry Zito, A's, 26

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs, 22

Freddy Garcia, Mariners, 27 Horacio Ramirez, Braves, 24

Jake Peavy, Padres, 22

Jerome Williams, Giants, 22

Rich Harden, A's, 22

Some of these players, such as Wood and the A's Big Three of Hudson, Zito, and Mulder, already have been around for so long, and have accomplished so much, that it's easy to forget how young they still are. The Marlins, like the Cubs, have three names on that list, and you could easily add a fourth, Carl Pavano, who at 28 has come into his own. Burnett, who threw a no-hitter at 24, missed the Marlins' championship season last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but while teammate Beckett was the World Series MVP, Schilling advises to watch out when Burnett returns, which could be as soon as next month.

"Burnett, before he got hurt, by far had the best physical stuff of just about anybody in the game, not just a young pitcher," Schilling said. "Unbelievable stuff. And guys coming back from Tommy John a lot of times are better than they were before, because they find out about their arm, what it takes to be a pitcher. Your money as a pitcher is tied into taking the ball every fifth day, not throwing 97 miles an hour."

Last Sunday in Milwaukee, Sheets struck out 18 Atlanta Braves, the most whiffs in the majors since Johnson tied a major league record with 20 against Cincinnati May 8, 2001. Sheets eclipsed the Brewers' franchise record of 14 by Moose Haas (April 12, 1978, against the Yankees). Of the 116 pitches Sheets threw in the three-hit complete game, 91 were strikes. He wasn't as sharp in yesterday's follow-up, fanning only three Pirates over seven innings in a 3-1 loss.

Sheets ranks third in the league in strikeouts with 69, trailing only Johnson (81) and Clemens (70).

Sheets, a first-round pick of the Brewers in 1999 out of Northeast Louisiana University, first lit up the radar screen in 2000, when he threw a three-hitter at Cuba in the gold medal game of the Olympics in Sydney. He made it to the big leagues the following season, but has yet to win more than 11 games in a season for a team that has averaged 98 losses in the last three years.

"He's had to mature without a mentor and become a No. 1 guy at a very young age for a very bad team," Schilling said. "That's tough. The stress is that you know if you don't win on the day you pitch -- the `guaranteed' day -- that's tough on the No. 1 guy and tough on everybody else. It's like, `Ben didn't win, now what do we do?'

"You obviously don't want to ruin a guy with failure. But it looks like he's gotten through that. He's throwing harder than I've ever seen him. He's matured."

And he has a lot of company. The pitching depth may be thin, but the quality at the top is as impressive as it has been in years.

Time to evaluate

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, responding to a report in the Globe that the team had been aggressive in demonstrating interest in Royals outfielder Carlos Beltran, e-mailed to politely dispute that account. "We have not been aggressive on any trade players, including KC's," Cashman wrote. "At this point we are just evaluating what we have, and if I had to guess, our need will be pitching rather than a position player as we approach July 31st. I have held zero major league trade discussions to date." An American League executive with knowledge of the Royals' plans said they still hope to climb into contention in the weak AL Central with Beltran, but reiterated that the Yankees have left no doubt of their interest in the center fielder. The Royals want major league-ready young players in return, with their primary needs at third base, catcher, and the outfield. How Jose Contreras performs upon his return from a tutoring session with Yankees special adviser Billy Connors will dictate whether Cashman has to make another pitcher a priority . . . Want to brush up on your Dodgers history in advance of the team's first visit to Fenway Park next month? Check out www.walteromalley.com, the website created by O'Malley's son, Peter, who succeeded his father as Dodgers owner, and Peter's sister, Terry O'Malley Seidler, who sat on the team's board while the club remained in family hands. Lots of good stuff there, including links to original correspondence between O'Malley and such giants of the game as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Casey Stengel . . . Whatever happened to Troy O'Leary, who earned a niche in Red Sox history with his two-homer, seven-RBI game in the clinching Game 5 of the division playoffs against the Indians in 1999? His agent, Jeff Borris, tells us that O'Leary is in Korea, playing for the Samsung Lions. He recently had a two-homer game . . . Red Sox owner John W. Henry withheld comment on last week's Associated Press report that the Sox donated more than $38 million to baseball's revenue-sharing pool, a figure eclipsed only by the $52 million-plus contributed by the Yankees. "I don't want to be accused of whining," Henry said.

Mulling Mondesi

Unlike Manny Ramirez, who took it upon himself to lobby Red Sox GM Theo Epstein to consider signing Raul Mondesi, Pedro Martinez didn't make it his business. But Martinez and Mondesi have been friends since they were in the minor leagues together with the Dodgers, and there is no doubt Martinez would welcome Mondesi's presence on the club, believing that the strong-armed right fielder would be a nice insurance policy for Trot Nixon, as well as someone who could spell Ramirez on occasion in left. Mondesi, who had to clear waivers by Friday, told the Pirates he couldn't perform until he resolved a bizarre situation back in the Dominican Republic involving former Red Sox infielder Mario Guerrero, who claims Mondesi owes him $640,000 for his help in jump-starting Mondesi's career. A Dominican court ruled in Guerrero's favor back in January, and until recently, the Pirates had frozen Mondesi's salary until a resolution was reached. Another court hearing is scheduled for June, but the Sox players who know Mondesi have no doubt he wants to play again this season . . . Who knows whether it will last, but Martinez was in much better spirits last week in Florida, as demonstrated by his memorable nude "rally time" dash through the clubhouse. Martinez is heartened by the way he has pitched in his last three starts, and appears to have succeeded in setting his contract situation aside, at least for the time being . . . Could the Marlins, eager for bullpen help especially with Chad Fox on the DL, have interest in Byung Hyun Kim? They wouldn't pay $10 million for a setup man, and would need to see Kim throwing better than he has this spring (back problems caused Kim's start yesterday in Pawtucket to be scratched), but according to one National League source, they might consider a deal involving first baseman/outfielder Jeff Conine, the original Mr. Marlin . . . There are still hurdles to be cleared, but the Marlins are hoping that a plan for a retractable-roof stadium, near Miami's Orange Bowl, is finally moving forward. There remains a $30 million hole in the stadium's financing plans. The defending champions are back to playing before sparse crowds in Pro Player Stadium, drawing roughly the same midweek crowds as the last-place Devil Rays drew against the Red Sox last week . . . A not-to-be-missed charity event takes place tonight at Brookline High School, where Epstein is scheduled to scrape the rust off his guitar and perform with his band Trauser, just one of the attractions lined up for the event to mark the 25th anniversary of the women's clothing store, The Studio, which was a local institution long before its owner, Ilene Epstein, gained fame for being the mother of the Sox GM. Ilene Epstein organized tonight's event, along with her twin sister, Sandy Gradman, and their friend, Marcie Brawer, to benefit the Women's Cancers Program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Sandy Gradman is a cancer survivor. A VIP party with the entertainers and special guests is $200 from 6:30-7:30 p.m., orchestra seats are $75, and balcony seats are $50. Call The Studio to reserve your seat at (617) 738-5091 or visit www.jimmyfund.org/studio . . . Are the Tigers running out of patience with Carlos Pena, who has 45 strikeouts in 136 at-bats entering yesterday? Last week, they benched him in favor of Greg Norton, who was batting .140.

Four-gone conclusion

Rockies manager Clint Hurdle abandoned his experiment with a four-man rotation after just 15 days. Not only didn't his starters thrive on short rest, but the experiment was taxing on the team's relievers, whose ERA shot up from 3.83 to 5.00. "Nowadays, pitchers are conditioned to throw 100-something pitches and they're done," Schilling said when asked if he thought a four-man rotation was feasible. "A lot of guys try to teach these pitchers pitch efficiency, and they're not teaching them the whole deal. They teach guys to pitch on a pitch count in the minor leagues, then they bring them up to this level, where each pitch, to me, is the equivalent of two to three pitches in the minor leagues. Then they expect them to go further now than they ever have before, and then wonder why pitchers struggle." . . . If it's not intentional walks, it's a bad back. But Barry Bonds, who recently missed six of seven games with back spasms, has gone almost a month without a home run. His last homer came April 29 against Penny. And you can be sure there are plenty of baseball people waiting to see whether Bonds will be affected by the fallout from the two-year suspension given track star Kelli White, who was linked to the BALCO steroid scandal and has agreed to be a cooperative witness. The one bit of good news Bonds got last week is that Major League Baseball will allow the Giants to make Harvey Shields, Bonds's longtime stretching coach, part of the team's training staff, provided Shields assists other Giants in stretching, too . . . Plans at Fenway Park call for the team's executive offices to be housed in a new building that will look out upon the field from a site between the bleachers and the new right-field roof seats . . . Congratulations to Red Sox pitching consultant Tony Cloninger, who was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, and a tip of the cap to Mike Port, the Red Sox vice president of baseball operations, who is convalescing at home after a heart attack three weeks ago . . . As Brockton Rox officials tell it, the Grady Little Appreciation Night they'd scheduled for Saturday night was intended to be a lighthearted salute to the deposed Sox manager, with a bit of a jab. The independent minor league team planned to pass out a Little "bobble-arm doll," showing him signaling for a lefthander out of the bullpen. That, of course, is exactly what Little didn't do in Game 7 of the ALCS, when he elected to keep Martinez in the game. But the club had second thoughts about the promotion, in part because it received word from Little's current employers, the Cubs, that he wasn't wild about the idea. The Rox pulled the plug on it, substituting Batting Helmet Night in its place. "It was meant simply to honor him from the lighter side," club president Jim Lucas said. "It was never our intention to insult anyone. We may have underestimated that even today, Oct. 16 is still pretty raw for a lot of Red Sox fans." Not to mention a certain ex-manager . . . Ex-Sox GM Dan Duquette has hired former Sox third baseman and scout Frank Malzone to manage his Berkshire Dukes in the New England Collegiate Baseball League . . . And who better to be playing for the independent Nashua Pride than Curtis Pride, the deaf outfielder who made a cameo appearance for the Sox and was leading the Atlantic League at .514 through his first 10 games?

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

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