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Though winged by injuries, Angels still aloft

The next time you're inclined to bemoan the prolonged absences of Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon from the Red Sox lineup, check out the Anaheim Angels. The Angels' best player, and a perennial MVP candidate, outfielder Garret Anderson, has been out a month with back and neck problems that have yet to be fully explained.

Their top setup man, Brendan Donnelly, was hit in the face by a ball during spring training, resulting in multiple fractures of his nose. When he tried to come back too soon, intense bleeding occurred, and he has yet to pitch for the Angels this season.

Their first baseman, Darin Erstad, sustained a severe hamstring injury that is likely to sideline him until July.

Their slugging third baseman, Troy Glaus, injured both shoulders diving for a ball April 30, and recent tests suggest that his throwing shoulder has a torn rotator cuff, the same injury that sidelined him last season. He also slipped out of the batter's box the other night and sprained a knee.

Their leadoff man, David Eckstein, healthy after an injury-plagued 2003, has been in a horrific slump all month, one in which he is batting just .156 (7 for 45), dropping his overall average to .230.

Their slugging outfielder, Tim Salmon, has a knee injury that has limited him to 18 games.

And yet, all the Angels have done is win, and win, and win. They opened the season by sweeping the Mariners in Seattle, then took two out of three from the M's the following week in Anaheim, sending Seattle into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover. They swept three from their top division rivals, the A's, in Oakland, then ran off a nine-game winning streak, mostly against two bottom-feeders, the Tigers and Devil Rays.

Friday night in Baltimore, they blew a nine-run lead to the Orioles, then won in the 10th, 10-9, even though closer Troy Percival blew his second straight save opportunity. Percival, however, bounced back to save last night's 7-4 victory over Baltimore.

It isn't as if their pitching staff, bolstered by the signings of free agents Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar, has been carrying them. Colon, who complained of lower back stiffness, was on the hill when the Orioles mounted their comeback Friday night, and the Angels' starters took an ERA of 5.12, only ninth best in the league, into last night's game. What the Angels have done is hit. Vladi Guerrero, the top prize on the free agent market, has been as good as advertised, batting .354 with 8 home runs and 28 RBIs, but he has been trumped in the early going by Jose Guillen, another free agent outfielder who is batting .316 with 8 home runs and 30 RBIs. The Angels also have gotten major contributions from their bench. Outfielder Jeff DaVanon is hitting over .300, as is 5-foot-8-inch supersub Chone Figgins, who had a career night Friday with five hits, including a grand slam. Infielder Shane Halter, late of the Tigers, also has proved useful.How much longer the Angels can thrive despite the rash of injuries remains to be seen. Glaus has hit four home runs as a DH since hurting his shoulder, so the Angels would like to keep his bat in the lineup, but playing third base may be out of the question. They're talking about moving him across the diamond to first base. If Eckstein's slump continues, that leaves manager Mike Scioscia casting about for another leadoff man. Donnelly should be back soon to fortify a bullpen that has seen the reemergence of Francisco Rodriguez as a premier setup man, so that will help, and Aaron Sele has rejoined the rotation to take the place of the faltering Ramon Ortiz. "When injuries come in the numbers we've had, some people may tend to panic," general manager Bill Stoneman said. "But we're still playing good baseball. We're not going to panic. We're just going to deal with it."

The DiNardo file

A little-known fact about Lenny DiNardo, the lefty reliever who came to the Sox from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft over the winter: He originally was drafted out of high school by the Red Sox. They took him on the 10th round, one round after they selected another prep star, Mark Teixeira. Both DiNardo and Teixeira opted to go to college, DiNardo to Stetson, Teixeira to Georgia Tech, and both are now in the majors, Teixeira with the Texas Rangers, who feel he is a star in the making. Teixeira's family was highly critical of how then-Sox scouting director Wayne Britton handled negotiations, but DiNardo had no such complaints. "I knew that I had a long way to go," he said. "I was 18 years old. I'd heard the horror stories of getting into pro ball and geting shuffled around. I thought in three years I could get a lot more mature, go to college, get most of that out of the way. I think it worked out well for me. No regrets on my part." None on the part of Stetson, either, which gladly offered a scholarship to DiNardo when his hometown school, the University of Florida, took a pass on the Gainesville star. "We recognized that he had a lot of upside," Stetson coach Pete Dunn said. "He was a big lefthander who threw strikes and had tremendous movement and command of his pitches. His sophomore year was his breakout year. He was pretty much unhittable, and wound up pitching for Team USA, too." By that time, DiNardo was receiving a great deal of attention from scouts, and in some circles was projected as a potential first-rounder. But his performance slipped a tick his junior year; Dunn suspected that DiNardo, caught up in the expectations, overthrew a bit and lost some of his movement and control. DiNardo doesn't think the drop-off was as dramatic as others may have thought. "I went 16-1 my sophomore year, and I think everybody thought I was going to be 17-0 the next year," he said. "It was one of those things where I wasn't perfect, and scouts said my velocity was down. But velocity is not a big thing for me. I'm not going to break down anybody's door with my fastball. I rely on movement, and hitting my spots." What DiNardo had, Dunn says, was the ideal makeup to make it as a pro. "He goes out and pitches," Dunn said, "and doesn't live and die with every pitch. He didn't have many bad outings, but when he did, he had a very short memory." With the Mets, who drafted him out of Stetson on the third round, DiNardo had the chance to be part of the revival of baseball in Brooklyn, which had been without a team since the Dodgers left after the '57 season until the Mets placed a Single A team there. "Brooklyn, it was great," he said. "They loved us. It was the closest thing to the big leagues, which is ironic, since it was short-season ball." He described a scene right out of "Boys of Summer": "We'd leave the stadium, people would be running after you, kids. It was incredible. They were great fans. I lived in a little Jewish neighborhood five minutes from the stadium. They'd come knock at our door, ask us if we'd play catch with them or Wiffle Ball. We'd go out and play with them, it was really fun." The fun ended abruptly on the night they were to have played Williamsport for the short-season championship: Sept. 11, 2001. "We woke up that morning, turned on the TV, and one of the towers was already down," Di
Nardo said. "We went outside, there was ash everywhere. We tried to drive into the city but got stuck in Staten Island. It was surreal, a nightmare." His major league debut came less than three years later, in Yankee Stadium. "It was really fun, something I'm going to tell my grandkids about," he said. "To be in the bullpen and hear them yell, `DiNardo, you suck.' That's something I'm going to cherish. If you don't hear that, there's something wrong." Was he surprised that the Yankee fans knew him? "My name was on my jersey," he said. "If not for that, they probably would have called me `Bronson.' I hear that a lot."

Mining the minors

Remember Tony Blanco, who was touted as the Sox third baseman of the future because of his great arm and slugging potential? Blanco injured his right shoulder, then was sent to the Cincinnati Reds in the Todd Walker deal. The Reds are converting him into a first baseman/outfielder with the Single A Potomac Cannons, and Blanco came into the weekend as the leading home run hitter in the Carolina League with 11, along with a .297 batting average . . . Brian Rose of the North Dartmouth Roses is pitching for the Chattanooga Lookouts, Cincinnati's Double A affiliate in the Southern League. Rose was 1-2 with a 3.46 ERA in six games (four starts) and had struck out 23 batters while walking just 3 in 26 innings, against competition unaccustomed to facing pitchers with major league experience. Rose, whose career was short-circuited by elbow problems, is 28, so this almost certainly is his last shot at making it back to the big leagues . . . Bryce Florie, nearly four years removed from the horrific eye injury he sustained when struck by a line drive in Fenway Park, is pitching for the Marlins' Triple A team in Albuquerque, where he is 1-0 with a 1.74 ERA in seven games. Florie was in major league camp with the Marlins this spring, but he cut his chin in a "sleepwalking" accident, pulled a rib cage muscle in his first spring outing, and did not pitch the rest of the month . . . Another former Sox reliever, Bob Howry, who was not re-signed after having more elbow trouble, pitched for the first time this season for Buffalo, Cleveland's Triple A affiliate, and threw a scoreless inning . . . And how about the return of Toby Borland, who lasted just nine days with the Sox in '97 but left an enduring memory: He hit a batter and gave up a grand slam to Darrin Jackson in one outing, then walked four straight batters in another, going to a 3-and-0 count on all four. Borland was called up by the Marlins, with whom he also pitched briefly last season, to assist a bullpen that has lost Chad Fox. Borland's control hasn't improved much in the interim: In the 10 innings he has pitched for the Marlins the last year, he has walked 10 . . . Duty beckoned for Red Sox minor leaguer Matt Kaercher, who last season pitched for the Gulf Coast League Sox, then was promoted in July to Single A Sarasota, where he was 0-2 with a 3.38 ERA in eight appearances, and later to Double A Portland, where he appeared in one game. Kaercher, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, where he was a biology and ecology major, was with the Sox, according to director of player development Ben Cherington, as part of a special "elite athletes" program in which qualified players from service academies can defer their military obligation to pursue a pro career. "We weren't paying him anything," Cherington said. The Sox wanted Kaercher back this spring, but the Air Force had other plans. "He went back to flight school," Cherington said. "We were in touch with him for a while, but I haven't talked to him in a couple of months." The Sox have placed Kaercher on baseball's "military list," which means they retain rights to him when his service obligation ends. Cherington said he knows of no other Sox minor leaguers who have left, to enlist or because they were called up to a reserve unit.

Downsized Giant

The talk about Barry Bonds hitting .400 has evaporated. In the 10 games leading up to Friday, Bonds went 2 for 24 (.083) -- the lowest average in the National League for that two-week period. Robert Fick of the Devil Rays had the lowest average in the majors over that span, .034 (1 for 29). Bonds then missed Friday's game because of back spasms, as his average sat at .360 . . . Stats Inc. reports that Curt Schilling has thrown the highest percentage of first strikes in the majors, 70.4 percent (162 of 230), just ahead of the Cubs' Greg Maddux (68.6 percent). The value of first-pitch strikes is illustrated by the fact that batters are hitting .238 against Schilling when he throws a first-pitch strike, .267 when he starts them with a ball . . . Another notable number from the Stats people: Minnesota's Johan Santana has not been charged with a regular-season loss since July 23, 2003, a string of 20 consecutive starts. He is tied for the fourth-longest such streak in the past 25 years, behind Roger Clemens (30 straight from 1998-99), Randy Johnson (24 from 1995-97), and Kirk Rueter (22 from 1993-94) . . . Legend holds that Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling, known as Old Aches and Pains, once fouled off 17 consecutive pitches before lining a triple. Already the stuff of legends is the at-bat Alex Cora of the Dodgers had last Wednesday night in Los Angeles. Facing Matt Clement of the Cubs, Cora fouled off 14 straight pitches with a 2-and-2 count, then launched a home run, the Dodger bench exploding in celebration. Dodgers manager Jim Tracy called it the greatest at-bat he'd ever seen in the major leagues. Cora's brother, Joey, is the third base coach for the White Sox, and when his game was rained out, he said he turned on the Dodger game. "That was awesome," Joey Cora said. "I was so proud of him I almost cried. I was with [manager] Ozzie [Guillen], and we had a beer on the first pitch and by the end of the at-bat we were so drunk that we had to call a cab to take us home." Just a slight exaggeration there. And for aches and pains, Alex Cora didn't escape unscathed. The next day, Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano plunked him in the elbow. Apparently, the Cubs weren't impressed by the way Cora flipped his bat after taking Clement deep . . . More Zambrano: Where would the Cubs be without the man who opened the season as their fifth starter? With Mark Prior still out with a strained Achilles' tendon, and Kerry Wood shut down last week with a strained triceps, Zambrano has stepped up big-time. The 22-year-old righthander from Venezuela gave up one unearned run in eight innings against the Dodgers Thursday, his third straight outing without allowing an earned run. He has allowed one run or none in six of his seven starts . . . To the growing list of Red Sox literature comes a new offering from Rob Bradford of the Lowell Sun: "Chasing Steinbrenner," which is due to hit bookstores by the end of the month. Bradford expanded his story to include the Blue Jays and their GM, J.P. Ricciardi, and one of the best parts is his recounting from the inside how the Jays and Sox approached the amateur draft. Bradford clearly enjoyed special access to the Sox as well, and while he curiously steers clear from some of last summer's major controversies -- the Manny Ramirez benching in Chicago and Grady Little's ouster -- he offers some great detail on a couple of Sox trades, as well as an informed look at the cadre of young assistants surrounding GM Theo Epstein.

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

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