NL East Report

The Atlanta Braves pitching staff has done a complete turn around, helping them back to the top of the division. In Florida, Juan Pierre sharpens one of his weapons and in Montreal, a hitting project starts to pay dividends. The Mets start the David Wright era and the Phillies admit to some faulty measurements. Plus, other news and notes from the NL East.

ATLANTA BRAVES
LHP Horacio Ramirez is past frustrated. The left shoulder tendinitis that put him on the 15-day disabled list more than two months ago is mostly gone, but he is no closer to coming back to the Braves' starting rotation.

The problem now -- or rather, the problem all along -- is that the muscle around his left scapula is too tight; his top of his left shoulder slopes lower than his right, decreasing the space on that side. In English, that means he experiences a sharp pain in his shoulder blade every time he throws a ball.

It might be something he'll just have to deal with, but it's too early to tell for certain. In the meantime, Ramirez has begun tossing from longer distances -- 140 to 150 feet, something he has not been able to do since before the All-Star break.

Because of the tendinitis, Ramirez didn't know his shoulder blade hurt. Now that rest has eliminated the tendinitis, the scapula tightness is what's left.

Team physicians assure Ramirez that he won't hurt his labrum or rotator cuff by throwing in his current condition, so he has taken up a program of tossing every other day.

"It seems like that's working a little bit," he says. "The ball was coming out good today, despite the little discomfort I had."

With LHP Mike Hampton and RHP Russ Ortiz back on track, the return of RHP Paul Byrd, the generally solid work of RHP John Thomson and the rejuvenation of RHP Jaret Wright, there might not be a place in the starting rotation when Ramirez is ready to come back.

"I don't care whether I'm a reliever or a starter, as long as I'm out there pitching," Ramirez said. "It hurts watching the team. I can't do anything about it. I can't help the team."

BRAVES NOTES:
  • CF Andruw Jones is on pace to strike out 144 times and ground into 32 double plays this season.
  • RHP John Thomson is trying to eliminate thinking from his pitching. "When I look at a spot and throw it, nine times out of 10 it's going to be where I want it to be. But in the game I start thinking more so I try to do extra stuff."
  • "With Bobby Cox in that dugout? No." - Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon, when asked whether he was surprised that the Braves were in first place when the Pirates arrived in Atlanta last week.
  • The Braves won six consecutive series from June 25 at Baltimore through July 18 against the Expos in Atlanta.
HE SAID WHAT? "I don't care what the gun says, it's how hitters react to your fastball that tells you whether or not it's where it needs to be." - RHP John Smoltz, on working to regain the consistency with his fastball.

FLORIDA MARLINS
CF Juan Pierre has spent extra time this week practicing his bunting, arriving at Montreal's Olympic Stadium long before most of his teammates have left their hotel.

With coach Tony Taylor pitching and coach Doug Davis looking on, Pierre has littered infields with bunts up and down both lines.

"I've been unhappy with it," Pierre said. "I haven't had any rhythm. I wanted to be sure I'd hit the ball before I started to run. I got into the habit of taking off before getting down the bunt."

Pierre is getting results. He had three bunts this week, including his first double on a bunt. Pierre's big week also included his first career steal of home Friday on a double steal. He also has started slapping the ball around like he did in 2003, with 13 hits in the last five games, including two Saturday.

"He's been hot the last week or so, that's what we've been waiting for," manager Jack McKeon said. "He's been practicing (his bunting), his baserunning has improved, he's getting better leads now. It's nice to see, now we've got to get him in."

Pierre had lost confidence in his bunting and was relying on the weapon less frequently. He now has 10 bunt hits and is on pace for 19. Last season, Pierre led the National League with 29.

McKeon said Pierre's baserunning has been better than earlier this season, with Pierre getting better leads. He stole home for the first time Friday.

MARLINS NOTES:
  • RHP Josh Beckett, on the disabled list since July 6 with a skin tear on his pitching hand, threw a simulated game Sunday and will start Friday (July 30) against Montreal.
  • Marlins officials had no comment on police reports that Jeff Allison, the team's top draft pick in 2003, spent three days in the hospital because of a heroin overdose.

    Allison was hospitalized after he and a friend split a bag of heroin on July 17, Lynn, Mass., police Lt. John Scannell told The Salem News.

    The friend, Jimmy Leontakianakos, told police he passed out in a car on Rockaway Street in Lynn and when he woke up, he noticed that Allison was having trouble breathing. He said he drove Allison to Union Hospital in Lynn. Allison was released Tuesday. He has not been charged, but police are investigating.
  • RHP Justin Wayne, who was recalled from Triple-A Albuquerque, allowed six runs in five innings Sunday. Wayne was optioned to Albuquerque on June 19. He started six games for the Isotopes and was 0-2 with a 5.52 ERA.
  • RHP Billy Koch has struggled with inconsistency, pitching well one outing and poorly the next. Pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal said Thursday's outing, in which Koch threw five of 19 pitches for strikes, was a result of him not making adjustments.

    "When you go out there days when your stuff's not working, you have to make adjustments," Rosenthal said. "He threw to the same spot, missing off the plate."
  • LHP Matt Perisho has become Jack McKeon's only left-handed pitcher out of the bullpen. Perisho, whose big-league career began in 1997, has appeared in a career-high 44 games.
  • Of the Marlins' last 24 losses through Sunday (July 25), 16 have been by two runs or fewer.
HE SAID WHAT? "Our division is up for grabs. Whoever gets hot is going to win it, and hopefully it'll be us." - C Mike Redmond.

MONTREAL EXPOS
One of the pet projects of manager Frank Robinson and hitting coach Tom McGraw may be reaching fruition.

CF Endy Chavez is showing signs of maturing as a hitter, and if this is not a mirage the 26-year-old Venezuelan could be speeding into the star category and the Expos will have a valuable weapon.

After stints with four major league clubs - the Mets twice, the Royals, Tigers and Expos - Chavez opened eyes two years ago when his .343 average with the Expos' Triple-A team at Ottawa led the International League.

The Expos called him up late in the season, and he hit .296.

In 2003, the 5-10, 154-pounder led off for the Expos much of the season but was a frustrating case as he never seemed to take full advantage of his speed by hitting the ball on the ground enough.

Things didn't seem to have changed all that much this season, except that Chavez alternated between first and second in the order much of the time.

He seems to have found his niche, certainly a comfort zone, in the number two hole. From June 23 through July 25 he hit close to .400 and moved his overall average above .300.

"He's looking at more pitches," said Robinson, who brushes aside the suggestion that he has played a key role in this change. "He's hitting the ball where it's pitched.

"I'm not taking any credit here. As a matter of fact, we've laid off getting into his ear too often. He's showing signs of understanding what he has to do."

Chavez says he is more comfortable batting second "because I think there are more things I can do.

"I can bunt or I can move a runner ahead. I can do a lot of things. And when I see a pitch I can handle I try to get the bat on the ball. I'm being more selective and I don't miss the pitches now."

Chavez is getting his share of extra-base hits, but he is more alert and ready to play "little ball" when that is the way to go.

"He is a little stronger - this isn't a big man - and he's wiser," Robinson said. "He's going to be good hitter."

Chavez has always been able to run down a ball in the outfield and he has a surprisingly strong throwing arm for such a slender man.

EXPOS NOTES:
  • Through games of Sunday (July 25), the Expos had only two pitchers with winning records - RHP Chad Cordero (2-1) and LHP Joe Horgan (3-1).
  • 2B Jose Vidro did not play in the final two games as the Expos swept the Marlins in Montreal on July 23-25. Vidro had hamstring tightness.
  • RHP Luis Ayala's 20-plus scoreless innings through Sunday (July 25) is the longest by a major league reliever since another Expo, RHP Britt Reames, had 20 scoreless (July 27-Sept. 19, 2002).
HE SAID WHAT? "That offer is off the table." - Expos president Tony Taveras about the four-year contract reportedly worth $30 million which was made to and rejected by SS Orlando Cabrera. Eligible for free agency at the end of the season Cabrera could be traded by the July 31 trading deadline.

NEW YORK METS
David Wright's first day in the big leagues started in Norfolk, Va., where he boarded a flight to New York. As the new third baseman of the Mets slept in his window seat, his cell phone recorded a message from Howard Johnson.

"Congratulations on going to the majors," said Johnson, the hitting coach at Double-A Binghamton and one of Wright's mentors. "Now go break all my records."

"HoJo" played third base for the Mets from 1985-93 and remains among the club's career leaders in home runs, doubles, RBIs and stolen bases. Wright doesn't have a catchy nickname but the Mets expect the same levels of production.

Like Jose Reyes, who came up to the majors for the first time last June, the Mets see Wright as one of their cornerstone players. In a market where top prospects are seen as little more than bargaining chips, the Mets held tight to Wright.

"I know what people expect," Wright said. "Now I have to take care of business between the white lines."

The venomous crowd at Shea Stadium took a break from its usual booing of the Mets to give Wright a loud ovation when he came to the plate in the second inning during his July 21 debut.

But Wright did not have a memorable game, going 0-for-4 in a 5-4 victory over the Expos. He got the ball out of the infield once, popping up to right field in the seventh inning after failing to get a bunt down.

Wright was tested in the top of the first when Jose Vidro hit a ball to his left. Wright grabbed it, spun and made a strong throw to first. It was a fairly routine play for a big leaguer but one Wright will never forget.

"Once that was out of the way I felt fine," he said.

The timing of Wright's promotion surprised incumbent third baseman Ty Wigginton, who went from Art Howe's office into the shower when he got the news, cursing loudly.

"I wasn't happy," said Wigginton, who lost his job despite hitting .281 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs.

Cooled off by the shower, Wigginton talked again with Howe and general manager Jim Duquette. He was told he would get a chance to play first base.

"Ty wanted reassurance," Howe said. "I think he felt a lot better after we talked a second time."

The latest plan for the Mets is to have Mike Piazza catch more often when his sprained left wrist heals. That would allow Wigginton to become the primary first baseman.

"Ty will get as many at-bats as we can between first, second, third and even playing left field," Duquette said.

METS NOTES
  • RHP Orber Moreno was placed on the 15-day disabled list Sunday with what the Mets claimed was a strained shoulder suffered in batting practice on Saturday. RHP Tyler Yates was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk. Yates has pitched well of late in the minors, harnessing command of his fastball after early-season struggles.
  • INF Joe McEwing remains with the team, but perhaps not for long. For the first time, manager Art Howe said he would be willing to use 2B Jose Reyes at shortstop, a decision that decreases McEwing's value off the bench. "We're not going to close any doors right now," Howe said. "We're going to do whatever we can to win."
  • C Justin Huber and RHP Wayne Ough were granted permission to play for Australia in the upcoming Olympics. Huber is with Triple-A Norfolk, Ough with Class-A St. Lucie.
  • The Mets traded Class-A C Bryan Purkey to Los Angeles for catcher Tommy Piazza, Mike Piazza's 22-year-old brother. The Dodgers took Piazza in the 26th round of the 2003 draft. He is 3-for-44 in his brief career. Piazza, who had been playing for Ogden in the Pioneer League, was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Mets. "I'm excited for him and I know he's excited about being in the organization," Mike Piazza said. "It was tough for him with the Dodgers because they had a lot of catchers. He's a hard-working kid and he doesn't want anything handed to him. He just wants his pro-ball experience to be a good one."
HE SAID WHAT? "We've been waiting for this day for a long time. David is somebody we're very proud of." - Mets scouting director Gary LaRocque on rookie third baseman David Wright being called up to the majors.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

There has been a suspicion almost from the day Citizens Bank Park opened that it was even smaller than advertised.

Finally, at the start of the first homestand of the second half, the Phillies admitted it.

Sort of.

Since the new park opened in April, the distance to the gap in left-center has been marked as 369 feet. Many pitchers, both from the Phillies and visiting teams, openly questioned the accuracy.

Over the All-Star break, team officials say, they measured. And it turned out that the 369-foot sign should have been three panels closer to center field. So they moved it to what they now say is the proper position.

And why was it in the wrong spot in the first place? Well, the official explanation is that it looked better aesthetically because it would have been too close to the advertising on the walls.

The rumor in the clubhouse is that the spot where the sign formerly stood is a mere 351 feet from the plate. The Phillies first had no comment on that and have declined to allow media outlets to conduct independent measurements.

"I haven't taken batting practice, but I could hit one out of here," said LHP Rheal Cormier. Another pitcher, who requested anonymity, said he's played in more spacious college stadiums.

The team relented on Saturday (July 24). The grounds crew came out with tape measures and made a show of verifying that the distances - 329 to left, 401 to dead center and 330 to right - are correct.

At that left-center field gap? The spot where the sign originally stood came in at 358 1/2 feet. That's the shortest in the National League.

So it's not surprising that at the All-Star break more home runs - 144 - had been hit at Citizens Bank Park than any other major league stadium.

Club president Dave Montgomery said he believes that winds coming through the open concourses have more to do with the home runs being hit than the dimensions.

"Our intent was to design a park that was fair to both hitters and pitchers," he said. "Currently the numbers of homers (153 in the first 51 games) would dictate that perhaps the park is not neutral. Hopefully as we get more data it will prove to be as originally intended.

"I don't think it warrants removing seats (to move the fences back) and I don't think it ever will."

PHILLIES NOTES:
  • LHP Eric Milton lost a no-hitter in the top of the ninth on Sunday (July 25) when CF Doug Glanville, a defensive replacement, broke back on a blooper by C Michael Barrett of the Cubs and then had the ball drop in front of him.
  • General manager Ed Wade and a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer got into a shouting match before the game Sunday (July 25). Wade first became angry when asked about reports that pitching coach Joe Kerrigan could be fired before the end of the season and then became increasingly irritated when pressed on the status of trade talks as the July 31 deadline approaches.
  • LHP Billy Wagner's sore shoulder was supposed to sideline him through the weekend series against the Cubs that ended Sunday (July 25), but there appears to be a possibility the closer might have to go on the disabled list.
  • LHP Billy Wagner, who has the right to demand a trade at the end of the season, hinted he wants to see what kind of moves are made for the stretch drive before deciding what to do. "There are a lot of positives here. There are a lot of reasons not to leave," he said. "But do you want to win? You don't want to back yourself into a hole where you're not sure the team is dedicated."
  • RHP Brian Powell hadn't pitched since July 10 through Sunday (July 25) despite allowing only one run in his last 12 1/3 innings. Powell finally got to pitch Monday night against the Marlins and gave up three earned runs in one inning of work.
  • General manager Ed Wade continues to insist he isn't even thinking about promoting top prospect RHP Gavin Floyd from Double-A Reading. "He still needs to work on command of his breaking ball and his fastball. We want to see better command before he makes the jump to the next level, let alone two levels," he said.
  • 1B Jim Thome returned to the lineup Saturday (July 24) after sitting out one game following a cortisone shot for tendinitis in his right index finger.
HE SAID WHAT? "Call me what you want. Call me the ace, call me overpaid. I don't care. All I worry about is getting the ball every fifth day and giving my team a good chance to win." - RHP Kevin Millwood, after beating the Marlins on July 21, on criticism he's received this season.

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