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LA makeover looking good

They began yesterday having lost two in a row, matching the number of losses they had in their first 14 games, when they got off to the best start in baseball, so maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers aren't going to go wire-to-wire to the World Series.

But all those who thought, in the wake of Paul DePodesta's extreme makeover of the roster last season, that these Dodgers would match their '55 and '40 Brooklyn ancestors for best start in club history, raise your hand.

Count us among those who were skeptical that the Dodgers could afford to part with Adrian Beltre, Shawn Green, and Steve Finley, after last season's midseason trade of clubhouse leader Paul Lo Duca and premier setup man Guillermo Mota, plus survive injuries to incomparable closer Eric Gagne, top-of-the-rotation righty Brad Penny, and outfielder Jayson Werth. Yet here are the Dodgers, leading the National League West after running off 12 wins in their first 14 games, with Derek Lowe leading the way. New acquisitions Jeff Kent and Jose Valentin, widely disparaged as inadequate replacements for the bats that were sent away, have produced -- the Dodgers began the weekend leading the league in runs (93) and tied with the Mets in home runs (22) -- while Milton Bradley, whose explosive temper appeared on the verge of negating his considerable talent, has had an MVP-type month, hitting five home runs and making plays in the field.

"We felt we needed to get younger and more financially flexible in order to be a viable contender on a consistent basis," DePodesta wrote in an e-mail from San Diego, where he was scouting a high school game. "We now have a relatively young core that has also bought our fertile player development system another year or two to blossom.

"That being said, we also wanted to create a high level of expectation in our clubhouse, which is tough to do with all young players. To that end, nearly every new Dodger has significant playoff experience. In short, we felt it was important to have players who are accustomed to having high expectations of themselves and the other players around them."

Owner Frank McCourt threw the support of the organization behind Bradley, who attended anger management classes in the offseason and proclaims himself a new man.

"I know I've said it before, but I had the same stubborn mind-set for so long," Bradley told the Los Angeles Times. "I was saying it but not living it. All I can do is keep going out there and proving it. One by one, those people on the fence will learn to support me and support the Dodgers for supporting me."

DePodesta is taking the man at his word.

"There is just too much good in Milton Bradley, and I'm not referring to his awesome ability as a baseball player," he said. "He is intelligent, a leader, and a great contributor to our community service efforts."

The Dodgers wound up paying Lowe more than many teams, including the Sox, were willing, giving him a four-year, $36 million deal. Lowe, whose erratic performance the last two seasons led the Sox to look elsewhere, has responded with a 1.27 ERA in his first four starts, and has not allowed an earned run in 17 innings spanning his last two starts.

"We truly believed that our starting pitching was the biggest upgrade for this club, and Lowe was the final big piece," said DePodesta.

The Dodgers' defense remains suspect, despite splendid shortstop Cesar Izturis. Penny's recovery is by no means certain, and despite the great potential of reliever Yhency Brazoban, the Dodgers need a healthy Gagne.

But so far, this team has meshed into a tough, competitive unit much quicker than anyone anticipated -- with the exception of DePodesta and McCourt, the man who hired him.

For Lucchino, it's past interference

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino pronounced himself satisfied with the resolution of the fan incident involving Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield, in which Christopher House had his season tickets revoked, a beer-throwing fan was told he could not purchase tickets, and Sheffield was exonerated by Major League Baseball, with no fine or suspension. Criminal charges could still be brought against the spectators.

"We spent 4 1/2 days doing a fairly thorough review," Lucchino said, "not only talking to police and security personnel but the people who were sitting in Box 86, and we also invited Mr. House to speak with us.

"If you interfere with a ball in play, you are going to be ejected. If you hit a player in the head while he is trying to get the ball, that is something more serious, and will not be tolerated. And if you throw a beer on a guy, that will be punished as well."

Lucchino said club officials watched some replays on high-definition TV that did "convince us that Sheffield was struck."

Alderson is a team player again

When the Red Sox were casting about for a general manager after the 2002 season, CEO Larry Lucchino approached Sandy Alderson, architect of the great Oakland teams of the late '80s and early '90s who as a high-ranking official in Major League Baseball was widely regarded as a possible successor to Bud Selig.

Last week, Alderson left MLB, where he had been executive vice president of operations, to take a position with the Padres, which revived this question: How serious were the Sox about Alderson?

"Those talks were quite preliminary," Lucchino said. "I talked to Sandy about a variety of issues when he was in the commissioner's office. I always found him a source of wise counsel."

Theo Epstein proved to be an extraordinary choice for the Sox, but it certainly is understandable if they thought Alderson, mentor to two of the game's most successful GMs in Billy Beane and Walt Jocketty, could run the team while providing a similar apprenticeship to Epstein. Instead, he is now in San Diego, where owner John Moores had gone through four club presidents since Lucchino left after 2001. Moores says Alderson has a mandate "to turn this into the best baseball franchise in America."


This one really hurts

There's no overstating the severity of the groin injury sustained by Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra Wednesday night in St. Louis. When Mike Piazza tore his groin in 2003 -- a Grade 3 tear, like Garciaparra's -- he missed 88 days, and that was without surgery. Barry Larkin missed a month of the 2001 season after straining his groin in spring training, then came back and tore the muscle, requiring surgery that ended his season at 45 games.

Rain had caused a delay in the start of the game, but Garciaparra insisted that was not a factor, because the field was in good shape. Garciaparra has had a startling run of injuries, but in the absence of any evidence, it is treading very dangerous ground to suggest that they were the result of his intense training program, or the muscle-building supplements (like creatine) that he has acknowledged using, or illegal substances he has vociferously denied using, an assertion backed up by Red Sox medical officials and teammates.

The Sports Illustrated cover jinx -- Nomar posed bare-chested as the very symbol of buffed-up superiority in 2001, shortly before he would undergo wrist surgery -- has seldom seemed so convincing. He gets hurt, he leaves $60 million on the table, he goes into an A-Rod-inspired funk, he gets traded, he watches the Sox win a World Series without him, and now this.

"The good thing is that I can still smile," he told reporters Thursday. "I've got that going for me."

Not much there to smile about.

His mind went blank

David Wells's pitching Wednesday night (eight scoreless innings in Baltimore) was much better than his recall. Wells said after the game he couldn't remember starting 0-2, as he did this year for the Sox. Last season, his only one in San Diego, the lefthander started 0-2 (with two no-decisions). But good starts have been the norm for Wells: 9-1 in '93, 4-1 in '97, 8-1 in '98, 3-0 in '99, 15-2 in '00, 6-1 in '02, and 10-2 in '03. Some thought Wells intended to say he'd never started 0-3, which is a fact.

History says he's no mystery

With their win over Randy Johnson Monday night, the Devil Rays have now won three straight starts against the Big Unit. The crack Devil Rays PR staff notes that it's only the fifth time a team has won three straight starts against the five-time Cy Young Award winner. Only one team ever won four straight: the Detroit Tigers, 1991-93. The others who won three: St. Louis (2000-01), San Francisco (2004), and Pittsburgh (2001-04).

Commissioner takes a long view

Bud Selig, in a meeting with sports editors last week in New York, reiterated his desire to increase the frequency in drug testing and toughen penalties considerably. "And we should clean up amphetamines," Selig said, addressing a topic covered in depth by the Globe's Bob Hohler last week.

"There has been a lot of revisionist history going on in the last three or four months," Selig said. "The idea that we turned a blind eye to it is wrong. They now say that the homers in 1998 and 1999 were all about steroids. But [back then] it was the ball and then the bats. I think it was that we had two expansions and it really diluted the quality of pitching."

Remembering Caminiti

Padres owner John Moores staged a night last week to honor the late Ken Caminiti, who died of a drug overdose last October after years of alcohol and drug abuse. Moores said he did it for the sake of Caminiti's former wife and their children, so that they would better understand that his life was not all darkness.

Moores also explained to San Diego columnist Nick Canepa why he took exception to remarks by Padres GM Kevin Towers this spring, in which Towers expressed frustration because he didn't recognize Caminiti's steroid use.

"I wasn't furious, I was disappointed," Moores said. "What Kevin suggested -- that if he had been more alert, he could have made a difference with Ken -- just was not the case. If Kevin had perfect knowledge of what went on in Ken's brain, he couldn't have done a damn thing about it. When Ken fell off the wagon, he fell off hard.

"Ken outed himself on alcohol and drugs. For Kevin to beat himself up on this was wrong. I called him in and told him, `What could you possibly have been thinking?' It was inappropriate guilt."

But it'll never fit on the jersey

Inspired by the example of the Los Angeles Angels at Anaheim, the Lake Elsinore Storm, a Padres affiliate in the Single A California League, have decided to change their name. According to team president and GM Dave Oster, the team's new moniker will be the Anaheim/Los Angeles/San Diego Storm of Lake Elsinore. Oster explained, "With our location [in Southern California's Riverside County], the boundaries are endless. We're an hour from anywhere."

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

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