Players back from injury
lift teams like trades

Jun 8, 2004 4:19 AM

So who is ready to win the World Series? Well, let’s relax, folks. It’s only June and baseball is a marathon. Patience and consistency are keys to being the best in baseball, the same two qualities that are necessary in the world of sports wagering.

After all, it’s not the hot teams in May and June that win the World Series, it’s the team hottest in October, or have you already forgotten the Angels and Marlins? At the end of the first month of the 2002 season, Anaheim was 11-14. No one was talking about the Angels as challengers in October.

One year ago, June 1, 2003, the Florida Marlins were 26-32, looking up at the Braves, Phillies and Expos in the NL East. They were just one game out of last place in the division and 100-1 shots to win the World Series. In October, they did.

Many times a June roster won’t be the one used in October, or even July. Managers are still tinkering with lineups or practicing patience with slumping players, hoping they’ll bust out of it. General managers are reviewing team needs and plotting trades to upgrade positions. Even minor leaguers can come up to help out.

In mid-season of 1996, a young outfielder named Andruw Jones joined the Braves from the minors, and in October was the starting center fielder in the World Series. This season, many talented teams have been waiting for key players to return from injuries. Let’s take a look at some baseball teams that hope to look better down the stretch.

CUBS: There is one heck of a logjam in the NL Central, with the surprising Reds and Brewers battling the favored Cardinals, Astros and Cubs. Chicago was the favorite (5-9) to win the division before the season started. Star slugger Sammy Sosa, 2B Mark Grudzielanek and SS Alex Gonzalez have battled injuries, but the bigger story has been the health of ace righties Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.

Wood is currently on the disabled list with triceps tendonitis. Prior missed two months with a sore Achilles tendon. He pitched six shutout innings in his first start Friday against Pittsburgh, allowing just two hits and striking out eight. In 2003, Prior was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts. He also averaged 114.2 pitches per start during the regular season, the most in the majors. The dynamic duo’s return to the mound is key if the Cubs are going to win their first World Series since 1908.

ANGELS: Anaheim has been winning despite a slew of injuries to 3B Troy Glaus, 1B Darin Erstad, DH Tim Salmon, CF Garrett Anderson and pitcher Brendan Donnelly. Glaus looks lost for the season, but they expect the others to be back at some point. If and when that happens, how good will this team be?

Anaheim’s starting pitching is average at best, with Aaron Sele as the only starter with an ERA under four, but what a remarkable relief staff. Scott Shields, Kevin Gregg, Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival give manager Mike Scioscia great flexibility late in games, which means he can ask the starters to only go 5-6 innings. After all, that’s a similar formula the Angels used two years ago when they won the World Series.

MARLINS: Speaking of winning the World Series, the Marlins may be low-budget, but they were a year ago and won the whole thing. Despite some offseason defections, Florida has speed, defense and a system loaded with strong young arms. The Marlins are again playing well behind a starting staff anchored by Carl Pavano, Dontrelle Willis, Brad Penny and Josh Beckett.

That staff may get even better with the return of righty A.J. Burnett this past weekend. Burnett looked sharp in his rehab after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Just what the National League wants to see — another fireballing arm to join the Marlins! By the way, when Burnett was healthy two years ago, he pitched 204 innings, allowed 153 hits and struck out 202.

RED SOX: Boston has four key free agents unsigned and it’s no secret that management is rolling the dice for this season: The mission is to win it all this year because this talented team won’t look the same in 2005. The Red Sox have been able to play well because of a strong pitching staff (No. 1 in the AL in ERA) with the additions of Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke. Both have been terrific.

It’s the offense and defense that have struggled because of the injuries to two key components, RF Trot Nixon and SS Nomar Garciaparra. They are team leaders and two of their best offensive and defensive players, but have yet to play this season. Fans hope they return at 100 percent for a second half run, because if you combine last year’s Red Sox offense with this pitching staff, that would be one formidable team to take one last crack at erasing the Curse of the Bambino.