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Phillies, Cubs are top NL surprises



Published: Fri, June 8, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The arrival of interleague play signals the completion of the first third of the Major League Baseball season. While division titles and pennant races are rarely settled in the first two months of the season, trends are established.

Here's a look at the surprises and flops the National League season has produced so far.

Biggest thud: No contest, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

PNC Park, Pittsburgh's jewel of a ballpark, is a wonderful place to watch a game. Too bad the home team (the only team in the NL that hasn't yet won 20 games) is providing so few thrills.

The team was bad last year and headed for 100 losses until an early September winning streak.

When rookie manager Lloyd McClendon visited Youngstown in January, he promised Pirates fans they would no longer be embarrassed to wear the black and gold.

McClendon had no idea just what a mess he was taking over and how hard it would be to live up to that vow, especially when 60 percent of his starting rotation went on the disabled list before the season began.

The payroll was hiked by $20 million, but the Bucs have little to show for it. Derek Bell, the free-agent outfielder who came over from the Mets, has a $6 million salary and .136 batting average after 110 at-bats.

Pitcher Terry Mulholland, the other acquisition, has a 0-0 record and an ERA of nearly 4.00 in 34 innings pitched.

Struggling to win one out of every three games played, the Pirates appear to be years away from contending.

Flop runner-up: How about Bobby Valentine's New York Mets?

The league's defending champions could get back into the playoff chase, but the clock is ticking.

The Mets certainly could use pitcher Mike Hampton, the free-agent who left for the Colorado Rockies and has an 8-2 record despite playing his home games at Coors Field (every pitcher's nightmare).

Biggest surprise: Take your pick from the Cubbies or the Phillies.

Manager Don Baylor's first season in Chicago resulted in a 65-97 season and little promise for 2001.

The Phillies had the same record last year, which cost manager Terry Francona his job.

Today, both teams have comfortable leads in their divisions, though preseason favorites Atlanta and St. Louis aren't far behind.

The pick here is the Phillies. The Cubs have Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood. The Phillies play in the same division as the Braves.

The success the Cubs and Phillies are enjoying offers hope to fans in cities with last-place teams.

Even Pittsburgh.

MVP: Surly as he is with teammates, opponents and the media, Giants outfielder Barry Bonds has this award wrapped up as long as he stays healthy.

Bonds has produced tremendous numbers (32 homers and 60 RBIs in his team's first 60 games) and has a shot at Mark McGwire's record of 70 home runs.

What Bonds wants more than an MVP award is postseason success, something that has eluded him in four previous playoffs series.

Cy Young Award: This race is way up in the air. Curt Schilling has 10 wins for the Diamondbacks, but even more impressive has been how Hampton and Kevin Tapani have won eight games with the Rockies and Cubs, respectively.

What to expect: The Braves and Cardinals will be very active when the July 31 trading deadline approaches.

Both teams saved a bundle last fall when they opted not to pursue free agent Alex Rodriguez. A key pickup could bolster both clubs for the stretch run.

With no runaway team, the NL West offers the best division chase, with the Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, Rockies and Giants all contending.

XTom Williams covers Major League Baseball for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.




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