Ups, downs in majors hitting July

Jun 28, 2005 2:07 AM

No question, 162 games is a long season.

Every year teams sprint out of the gate in April and May with October dreams, only to come back to the pack in June. It’s not a sprint, of course, but a marathon. A strong balance of pitching, defense and offense carries the best teams into the postseason.

Injuries along with trades made before the July deadline are key. Teams have figured out their strengths and weaknesses now and are beginning to look for pieces to add before the deadline. Others are figuring out which players to dump.

Here’s a look at some recent baseball surging and slumping teams.

INDIANS: Back in March, this looked like a solid team on paper. Cleveland had a dynamite young offense last season and needed only to upgrade a weak pitching staff. They revamped the bullpen and added Kevin Millwood to the starting rotation, forming a nice 1-2 lefty-righty punch with C.C. Sabathia.

Unfortunately, the Tribe got off to a terrible start. The offense was not hitting or scoring runs until a few weeks ago when batting coach Eddie Murray was fired. The pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, has been outstanding.The Indians ripped off a 12-2 streak, averaging 6.1 runs per game. Their pitching staff is No. 2 in the AL with a 3.59 ERA, including a 2.76 bullpen ERA that trails on Minnesota. If Cleveland keeps hitting, this is a team to watch.

PHILLIES: The National League version of the Indians is Philadelphia, which recently went on a 17-6 run to get back in the wild NL East race. The rally was made with offense behind RF Bobby Abreu (.324, 16 HRs, 17 steals) and sluggers Jim Thome, Pat Burrell, and Mike Lieberthal. This offense is fifth in batting in the NL and third in both runs and steals.

The emergence of ace Brett Myers (2.19 ERA) has anchored the starting staff aided by veterans Jon Lieber and Randy Wolf. The bullpen ERA is the second worst in baseball behind Colorado, but has reliable Billy Wagner (18 saves). Look for the Phils to add middle relief before the trading deadline if they stay hot.

ROYALS: After manager Tony Pena stepped down, the Royals went on an 11-4 spurt, sweeping the Yankees and Dodgers. Still, Kansas City is tenth in the AL in runs scored, with the second worst staff ERA (5.37). Runelvys Hernandez and Zach Greinke are potential young aces, but when Jose Lima leads in starts, keeping a hot streak going is not likely.

ATLANTA: At the other end of the spectrum we find the slumping Braves. After a 23-14 start, Atlanta went 13-19. The problems are injuries to Chipper Jones, their best offensive player, and starting pitchers Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton. The Braves are already thin offensively, with poor seasons from SS Rafael Furcal (.221) and Brian Jordan (.233).

GIANTS: The aging Giants skidded to a 6-17 mark the last three weeks. So what gives? It’s not so much old age as it is lack of pitching. Starter Jason Schmidt is down to throwing his fastball in the low 90s, after being in the high 90s in his prime. The San Francisco staff ERA is 5.07 — third worst in the NL. The bullpen has blown 11 of 26 save opportunities and closer Armando Benitez is still injured.

DODGERS: The news keeps going from bad to worse. After a 12-2 start, Los Angeles went 21-34 over the next 55 games. Ace closer Eric Gagne is done for the year and won’t be back from Tommy John surgery until July 2006 at the earliest. No one is hitting, During a recent seven-game losing streak, the Dodgers were blanked twice and scored a total of three runs in the other two contests. With Shawn Green and Adrian Beltre (48 HRs) dealt in the offseason, you can likely stick a fork in these Dodgers.