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Indians make a sharp turn

Of all the teams to be playing a meaningful series in mid-August, the Cleveland Indians?

And yet there are the Tribe, just one game behind in the American League Central and engaged in a series with the team directly ahead of them, the Minnesota Twins, whom they will play 11 more times in the final third of the season.

"What's encouraging," GM Mark Shapiro said Friday, "what makes it feel somewhat real and sustainable, is that we've played well the whole year, with the exception of one component that failed regularly, and it was crucial. But we've been a team that played hard and played right and hit the ball hard from Day 1."

The weak link was the bullpen, with its league-worst 5.25 ERA and more blown saves (24) than saves (23). The Tribe pen had allowed 96 more earned runs than the league-leading Angels' pen, and 71 more than the league average. But with the return of Bob Wickman from Tommy John elbow surgery and former Sox castoff Bob Howry, apparently fully recovered from surgery to remove a mass in his right forearm, the bullpen has stabilized. In the last 21 games entering the weekend, the pen had an ERA of 3.26 and had converted nine of a dozen save opportunities.

That has allowed the Tribe to more fully enjoy the benefits of a young, dynamic offense that in the parlance of Sox GM Theo Epstein is an on-base machine. Entering the weekend, the Indians were first in the league in runs with 646, a total of 156 more than they scored last season after 116 games. They were hitting .282, just 1 point behind co-leaders Anaheim and Baltimore, and their .358 on-base percentage was tied with the Red Sox for best in the majors. They were third in the league in walks with 439, up from 345 last year at this time.

And that was despite trading talented outfielder Milton Bradley, who clashed with manager Eric Wedge in spring training.

"That was a defining moment for us as a team, to trade our best player," Shapiro said. "Some of it was market-driven. We have to stick with what we believe in, a team approach to winning. We can't rely on just one guy, or two or three. We have to have different guys in the lineup carrying us every night. Maybe that's not what I'd do in Boston, but with a $38 million payroll, it's what I have to do here.

"That team approach is something I think your football fans in New England are familiar with, and have seen how it can work."

The Indians were a powerhouse in the '90s, going to two World Series. But the payroll, which hit $85 million, became too rich for the Cleveland market to sustain, in the view of team management, despite year after year of sellouts at Jacobs Field. It was left to Shapiro to divest the team of some of its biggest stars, including the beloved Jim Thome, ace Bartolo Colon, and perennial All-Star Robbie Alomar, and build around a new core of young players.

"How we're doing it is the way we designed it," Shapiro said, "but the pace has been a lot faster than we anticipated."

In spring training, Shapiro predicted that by next season the Indians would be back in a position to contend. Happily, he's watched as the progress of his kids has outstripped expectations. C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Jake Westbrook have formed an impressive threesome at the top of the rotation.

Catcher Victor Martinez has 89 RBIs, the most of any catcher in the majors. Travis Hafner is on pace to drive in 117 runs as a DH. Second baseman Ron Belliard has been a .300 hitter nearly all summer. Ben Broussard has two pinch-hit grand slams, and Coco Crisp is batting .447 out of the No. 2 hole. And Framingham Lou Merloni was hitting .300 off the bench until he went on the DL with elbow inflammation.

Shapiro gives a great deal of credit to Wedge, the one-time Sox catching prospect. The Indians lead the majors with 22 one-run wins.

"People in Boston know about him," said Shapiro. "He's somewhat of a Jason Varitek type, in the way he's made a difference with this team. He was the right guy, the right personality, for where we were in the development process of this team. The values we wanted to instill in this team are the values Eric holds close. He's not a football coach in terms of discipline, but there's a firm line in how he expects the game to be played. Our team has fun playing hard."

There's no wait-till-next-year attitude now. Shapiro said he's looking to make a waiver deal to improve the club's pitching, though the best possibilities either have been placed on waivers and called back, or have not yet been waived.

"This is real," he said. "We've got to go for it. To be playing meaningful games after what we've been through in the last year and a half is an enjoyable thing."

Cubs fans go sour on slumping slugger

It may have taken less than two weeks for Nomar Garciaparra to become arguably the most popular Cub, especially since Chicago fans have turned on Sammy Sosa, with the slugger locked in one of the worst slumps of his career. Sosa is batting just .143 (6 for 42) in his last 10 games and was booed heavily after going 0 for 5 with four whiffs in Thursday's extra-inning loss to the Padres.

Muddying the issue were reports that Cubs manager Dusty Baker was reluctant to drop Sosa lower than the No. 4 hole because Sosa was "sensitive." Sosa and Baker met on the subject Wednesday. "A meeting is not a fight," Baker said. "A meeting is a meeting. There is no misunderstanding. Sammy is a great player and I'm the manager. You've got to talk. Why is it construed as a misunderstanding?"

Baker acknowledged that Sosa said he didn't want to hit fifth or sixth. "I didn't say I couldn't move him in the order," Baker told reporters. "I decided not to. If the time comes when I have to, I'll do what I've got to do. We don't need any outside distractions or rumors."

The numbers would argue that Baker may have no choice but to drop Sammy. According to Stats Inc., Sosa's .207 average when hitting in the No. 4 spot in the lineup is the second-lowest figure in the majors among 56 players with at least 75 at-bats at cleanup. Sosa's performance is trumped by teammates Aramis Ramirez, who has the highest cleanup batting average in the big leagues at .407, and Moises Alou, who currently is eighth in the majors with a .325 mark.

Braves didn't go wrong with Wright

While the Indians' success has come from their offensive prowess, the Braves have thrived by the more conventional route. Entering this weekend's possible playoff preview against the Cardinals, they were 11th in the majors with a .266 batting average, 14th in scoring, 13th in on-base percentage, and 14th in slugging, but their 3.60 earned run average led the majors.

Last month, Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Jaret Wright combined for a 14-0 record with a 1.87 ERA. Wright is a footnote in the story of how Pedro Martinez came to the Red Sox after the 1997 season. The Indians were very much in the Martinez mix but refused to part with Wright, who as a 20-year-old rookie won Game 4 of the World Series and was the Game 7 starter.

Expos GM Jim Beattie elected to take Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. for Martinez. Wright's career was derailed by shoulder problems that resulted in surgery. He wound up being acquired in a waiver deal last August by the Braves from the Padres. Wright is 9-0 in his last 15 starts.

Etc.

Tough talk

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino held the same job with the Orioles during much of Cal Ripken Jr.'s iron-man streak, and with the Padres the memorable day when Ken Caminiti was so ill in Mexico that he was lying on the floor of the manager's office with intravenous tubes sticking out of his arms, but insisted he would play and hit two home runs. So you can only imagine how he privately views some of the stuff that has gone on with the Red Sox this season. Then there's Angels outfielder Tim Salmon, who has four tears in the rotator cuff and biceps tendon in his left shoulder, but said he prefers to put off surgery until after the season because the Angels have a shot at the playoffs. The injury obviously has had a negative effect on Salmon's performance -- he is batting .249 with 2 home runs and 23 RBIs -- but the 35-year-old outfielder, who has the security of being signed for next year for $10 million, is gutting it out.

Blue Jay way

Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, in announcing Carlos Tosca's dismissal as manager last Sunday, told reporters he detected signs that players were "mailing it in." Ricciardi has fired two managers since becoming GM in the winter of 2001, having replaced Buck Martinez with Tosca after extolling Tosca as a good fit for a young team because of his teaching skills. The Jays have since grown even younger, but Ricciardi decided they needed someone else. "Joe Torre probably would have a hard time managing a ball club as young as ours," Ricciardi said at the news conference announcing Tosca's firing, with first base coach John Gibbons being named interim manager. "You never know down the line, but we'd probably need somebody who has worked with young players and is used to the ups and downs of that."Veteran's dayGreg Maddux became the first pitcher since Cy Young in 1901 to win his 300th game against a pitcher (Brad Hennessey of the Giants) making his major league debut; Young won his 300th against John McPherson.

First things?

Ken Griffey's season-ending hamstring injury has the Reds already talking about moving him to a corner outfield position. First base would make sense, except the Reds have Sean Casey playing there. Griffey played two games at first with the Mariners, and former Reds manager Bob Boone once said Griffey had Gold Glove potential at the position. A trade? Griffey will be a 10-5 player after the season, meaning he could reject any deal. Since coming to the Reds, Griffey, 34, has had six injuries that have placed him on the DL. Former Sox outfielder Darren Bragg was added to the Reds' roster. Bragg played left field beside Griffey in Seattle before being traded to the Sox in the Jamie Moyer deal. Bragg on his long and winding road: "This is a crazy game and crazy things happen. For every good thing that has happened to me, there are 10 bad things."

Kid stuff for Matsui

Shades of the Babe: Hideki Matsui hit two home runs and drove in six runs after visiting a 13-year-old Japanese patient in the Hackensack (N.J.) Medical Center. When reminded of the legendary tale of Babe Ruth promising a hospitalized child he would hit two home runs, Matsui told the New York Daily News he could never do that. "All I was asked to do was give him some courage and energy," said Matsui. "The child saw the game and he's very happy about the homers."Wild greetingBill Arnold of United Features passes on that Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams has been hired as a casino greeter by Donald Trump. No word on whether the gig is at the Trump casino that recently filed for bankruptcy protection.

Back-seat diverTom Glavine, who never lost a tooth playing hockey in Billerica, lost two teeth when a cab in which he was riding was involved in an accident as it took the Mets pitcher from LaGuardia Airport to Shea Stadium. The cab collided with a sports utility vehicle; Glavine, who was speaking with his wife on a cellphone, had not yet fastened his seat belt when the accident occurred. He also needed 40 stitches to close cuts in his lip and chin. "I guess it's a hard lesson to learn," Glavine said of not securing his seat belt. "Probably every one of us is guilty at some point in time of getting into a cab in particular and not putting on a seat belt. I will say I'm always diligent about it when I'm driving my own car, but probably neglectful, like everybody else, when I get in a cab. That's kind of the ironic thing. In this particular instance, I was in the process of at least thinking about putting it on. I just didn't get that far."

Don't bobble second chance

Missed out on getting a Grady Little bobble-arm doll the first go-round? The independent league Brockton Rox, who raised nearly $40,000 for Little's charity of choice, the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, with its sale of the dolls earlier this summer, is auctioning off 16 dolls -- these autographed by the former Sox manager -- on eBay beginning tonight at 11:45 p.m. One doll a week will be auctioned off, with all proceeds going to charity . . . Sox fans in the Midwest are invited to show up Saturday night in Chicago to talk all things Red Sox with yours truly at Jack Sullivan's sports bar, 2142 N. Clybourn Ave. from 7:30-10 p.m. There will be a silent auction of Sox memorabilia and other prizes, with all proceeds going to the Jimmy Fund.

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