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A few pitches, no movement

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles were batting in the second inning last night when the voice of Kevin Behan, the Orioles' manager of baseball information, came over the press box PA.

"Attention, press box. The New York Yankees have announced . . ."

Dozens of heads lifted expectantly, especially on the third base side of press row, where the visiting media sat. At last, after days devoid of real news -- a condition, contrary to appearances, not exclusive to the FleetCenter -- the spinmeisters and posers, gossips and rumor mongers were going to have to step aside for the kind of breaking development that undoubtedly would lead "SportsCenter" later.

The Big Unit, surely, had landed in the Bronx.

" . . . their pitching rotation for Friday and Sunday. Kevin Brown will pitch on Friday. Orlando Hernandez on Sunday."

No mention of Randy Johnson, or any other trade of consequence. With the trading deadline now just 48 hours away -- 4 p.m. Saturday -- sorting out fact from fiction in the realm of baseball dealmakers would continue to challenge correspondents and their consumers alike.

Johnson, despite speculation yesterday that he had turned down a deal that would have sent him to the Dodgers (could someone please explain how Dodgers owner Frank McCourt suddenly went from thin pockets to spendthrift overnight?), still appears headed to the Yankees or nowhere at all, unless the Angels somehow can pull off an 11th-hour coup of the magnitude of last winter's cloak-and-dagger signing of Vladimir Guerrero.

The Red Sox and Cubs continue to have conversations regarding a possible swap of shortstop Nomar Garciaparra for pitcher Matt Clement. That's a deal that still ranks on the far side of improbable but could take on added appeal from the Cubs' side if ace Mark Prior comes through tomorrow's start looking as if his elbow will hold up for the stretch run, one of the Chicagoans' foremost concerns.

From the Sox' side, general manager Theo Epstein must weigh the risk of trading an icon, albeit one whose address will soon change anyway, for a guy who will make a dozen starts between now and October, and like Garciaparra could opt for free agency after the season. You could certainly envision Epstein asking the Cubs to sweeten the deal with a prospect or two, especially if the Cubs are going to insist the Sox also take the salary of shortstop Alex Gonzalez to even out the deal economically.

Again, this one may never go past the talking stage. Neither team has the least bit of interest in expanding their conversation to include interlopers from the outside, the Sox especially wary after their very public pursuit of Alex Rodriguez went unrewarded.

The Sox are exploring other avenues in search of a pitcher. One possibility is Victor Zambrano, the Tampa Bay righthander with the 95-mile-per-hour fastball and faulty radar (he has walked a league-high 96 batters this season). Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella told reporters yesterday he was doubtful anything would happen with Zambrano before the deadline, but a top Devil Rays scout was spotted in Sarasota this week, checking out the Sox' top prospects in the Single A Florida State League.

If Zambrano, 28, can harness his stuff, he can still blossom into a front-line starter. He has a 9-7 record and 4.43 ERA, with 109 whiffs in 128 innings, Opponents are batting just .230 against him, second lowest in the league. The Mets and Rangers reportedly are looking at him, too.

Righthander Kris Benson of the Pirates still appears bound for the Minnesota Twins, who have the prospects to satisfy Pittsburgh GM David Littlefield. One rumor making the rounds yesterday had Benson involved in a three-way deal, with first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz coming to Boston and third baseman Kevin Youkilis going to the Pirates, but that one was dismissed out of hand. The Twins, said one of the principals in the know, had more than enough prospects to satisfy the Pirates.

Information with far more credence was the Sox' interest in Arizona outfielder Danny Bautista. The Diamondbacks had at least one scout tracking the Sox here this week, and with center fielder Steve Finley unwilling to waive his no-trade clause for an East Coast team, Bautista is an attractive alternative. Bautista, 32, who originally came up with the Tigers and also has played for the Braves and Marlins, is a 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pound right fielder who is having one of his better seasons, with a .308 average, 10 home runs, and 51 RBIs. He has postseason experience, a strong arm, is hitting lefties (.307) and righties (.308) equally well, and would give the Sox some excellent insurance if Trot Nixon is out for an extended period, as is feared.

Bautista is being paid $4 million this season, but is not signed beyond this year. Jay Payton of the Padres also loomed as a possibility, but the Sox shot down speculation of a deal that would have netted them Payton and reliever Jay Witasick for Derek Lowe. It's possible the deal could be reworked to include additional players.

Carlos Beltran? The word yesterday is that Astros owner Drayton McLane remains determined to see whether the Astros can make a run at a wild-card spot with his club kept intact. If Beltran elects to leave as a free agent after the season, so be it -- McLane will apparently be content to take the two draft picks the Astros will receive as compensation. Houston also could be playing for time -- if they're out of it in August, Gerry Hunsicker could still attempt to strike a waiver deal.

But for now, it remains a world of what-if's, maybes, you-never-knows, and no-ways. Saturday's deadline can't come fast enough. 

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