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Cranking out the hits in LA

While the Great Bonds continues to make history with nearly every swing -- his .525 average entering yesterday's play already has people wondering whether, on his way to catching Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, he also will become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams -- there has been another unexpected development on the West Coast. Frank McCourt's Dodgers are winning. And they're doing it with their bats.

McCourt, the Boston real estate mogul hamstrung by the timing of his purchase of the ball club, did little to assuage fears that the Dodgers had done nothing to improve the majors' worst offense, and was ridiculed for proclaiming that the club would add a big bat in spring training then not following through.

The only significant addition came late in spring training, when the Dodgers added outfielder Milton Bradley, who exhausted the patience of Indians officials after he hopped a cab and left camp during a game. That deal was made by the Dodgers' new general manager, Paul DePodesta, hired away from Oakland, where he'd been Billy Beane's top aide.

The situation appeared ripe for the Angels, whose new owner, Arte Moreno, dominated the headlines with his big-bucks acquisitions of Vladi Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, and Kelvim Escobar, to make inroads into the Dodgers' iron grip on the Southern California market. Indeed, the Angels went outside of their Orange County base and aggressively targeted Los Angeles County in their ad campaigns.

So what happens? The Angels have blown hot and cold in the early going, while the Dodgers are off to their best start since 1988, the last year they won a World Series.

The Dodgers swept the Giants in San Francisco last weekend, their first series sweep in San Francisco in almost four years, and edged the Giants again Friday night in 12 innings in Los Angeles, sending the defending NL West champions to their eighth loss in nine games.

Underachieving third baseman Adrian Beltre is off to the best start of his career, batting .365 with 6 home runs and 16 RBIs. He homered in three consecutive games. Catcher Paul Lo Duca is batting .466, second in the league only to Bonds. Dave Roberts has a .400 on-base percentage and is 12 for 12 in stolen base opportunities. Overall, the Dodgers are hitting .277 and are 9-0 in games in which they've scored four or more runs.

The club is winning even though the vaunted starting pitching has struggled, collectively bringing a 5.93 ERA into last night's game against the Giants.

Just as the Sox had their "Cowboy Up" rallying theme, the Dodgers have found their own brand of inspiration: on Opening Day, first baseman Shawn Green brought in the CD by William Hung, the bounced contestant from "American Idol," and his music has been a clubhouse staple.

The Dodgers' battles with Bonds have spiced up one of the game's great rivalries. Bonds wore out the Dodgers last weekend, with four home runs and eight RBIs, including a four-hit game (two home runs). One of his home runs came on a 100-mile-an-hour fastball from ace closer Eric Gagne, who afterward called the confrontation with Bonds one of the greatest moments of his career.

But on Friday night, the Dodgers walked Bonds intentionally four times, a career high. One of those walks was issued by Gagne, who put Bonds on with two outs and nobody on in the ninth.

Snakebitten Shea Hillenbrand, historically a fast starter for the Red Sox (.333 through April last season, .341 in April 2002), is off to a dreadful start in his first full season for Arizona. Hillenbrand came into the weekend batting .178 (8 for 45) in 14 games, and was 0 for 11 against lefthanders. He was benched in favor of rookie Chad Tracy, who had four hits in his first big-league start Thursday. Hillenbrand isn't the only D-Back slumping. Newly acquired slugger Richie Sexson had five home runs but was batting just .197, Steve Finley was at .190, and Robbie Alomar was at .222 with just two extra-base hits before he fractured his hand. Alomar, who turned 36 Thursday, was once a lock for Cooperstown and still will get serious consideration; he's a 12-time All-Star and a 10-time Gold Glover. But his dropoff after the 2001 season was shocking. Through 2001, he hit .307 with a .378 on-base percentage; since then, he has hit .261 in 302 games with a .332 on-base percentage and only intermittently showed great leather . . . And nothing will make Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly age faster than watching Matt Mantei, his closer, give up three ninth-inning home runs in the span of 12 days. Two were game-deciders, the other a tying blast . . . Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli, emulating Joe Torre in New York (and Jimy Williams when he was in Boston), insists that anyone listening to music in the clubhouse before a game has to use headphones. Call me old-fashioned, but it is jarring to walk through the Sox clubhouse before a game and listen to the vilest lyrics imaginable when rap is the music of choice, which is frequently. It's a little surprising that some player hasn't made an issue of it . . . In an extraordinary postmortem by the standards of most players, but par for the course for him, Curt Schilling paid a middle-of-the-night visit to the Sons of Sam Horn website after losing in Toronto and gave a virtual blow-by-blow description of what took place. He said that if Terry Francona was going to take him out, it would have to have been after the seventh inning, and he reiterated his contention that he is here to win games in the late innings, not to turn them over to the pen . . . Dave Barrett, brother of Cubs catcher Michael Barrett, tells of watching his brother's big-league debut, in which he faced Schilling. "Schilling went nine innings and in the ninth, he threw three pitches to Michael, who looked like he missed all three," Barrett told Melissa Isaacson of the Chicago Tribune. "His last pitch of the game was 98 m.p.h. Afterward, Michael says to my wife and me, `Wow, did you guys see that last at-bat? I got a piece of that ball. I was on that guy.' "

In it together Hartford Courant baseball scribe Dave Heuschkel points out that the next time Doug Mirabelli catches Tim Wakefield, he will have started more games with the knuckleballer than any other catcher in Wakefield's career. Mirabelli and Jason Varitek are currently tied at 52 . . . Don't look now, but former Sox second baseman Todd Walker began the weekend ranked eighth in the National League in on-base percentage at .456, the same as Manny Ramirez. Walker had 15 hits, 11 walks, and scored a dozen runs in his first 14 games. Last in the AL in on-base percentage at .234 was Pokey Reese, Nomar Garciaparra's fill-in at short and Walker's anointed successor at second. Walker has been doing a great job filling in for Mark Grudzielanek, who is recovering from a strained Achilles' tendon . . . Why opposing teams respect Varitek, Chapter LXV: "Did you see him come running in from the bullpen when he thought they might use him to pinch hit?" marveled Toronto bench coach Joe Breeden. "And did you see him run back out to the pen when he didn't? How many stars would do that?" . . . The Indians were sufficiently concerned about ace lefty C.C. Sabathia that they scratched him from what would have been his 100th start Thursday. An MRI showed tendinitis in his left biceps, but he is expected to be back in the rotation by the time the Sox are in Cleveland May 3. Sabathia is only 23; Bob Feller is the only Indians pitcher to make 100 starts before his 24th birthday . . . Sox 2003 sandwich pick Matt Murton (32d overall) began the weekend tied for the Florida State League lead in home runs with 4, which is twice as many as he hit in 53 games last year with short-season Lowell . . . Murton's teammate, switch-hitting shortstop Hanley Ramirez, is batting .304, but the Sox' top prospect made eight errors in his first 15 games . . . There were some raised eyebrows over the fact that the Sox had no problem with so many players staying over for the Bruins game in Boston last Monday night, even though that meant traveling on the day of a game, which clubs usually work to avoid. Manager Terry Francona said that in this day of private jets, he had no problem with it, but some baseball people were wondering whether a tricky precedent had been set . . . Did anyone believe Armando Benitez would lead the majors with eight saves entering this weekend? No. 8 came when Benitez struck out Jim Thome to save the Marlins' ninth straight win (and 18th in 20 meetings) against the Phillies. And Ugie Urbina, who picked up his first save for the Tigers last week after missing all of spring training, wonders why Marlins GM Larry Beinfest is untroubled that Urbina didn't re-sign with the Fish?

Sweet Lew Helping to keep the Twins afloat while Torii Hunter recovers from a strained hamstring is former Sox farmhand Lew Ford, a 12th-round draft choice out of Dallas Baptist in 1999 who was traded the following year to Minnesota for reliever Hector Carrasco. Ford entered the weekend leading the AL in batting with runners in scoring position with a .571 average, and led the team with 15 RBIs. He also is something of a flake; during a spring training game against the Sox, he asked a teammate if the Sox pitcher they were facing is someone they'd seen in Pawtucket the year before. The pitcher was Keith Foulke . . . Here's what Jason Giambi said about Wakefield when he heard that the Yankees wouldn't be facing the knuckleballer this weekend: "He's the guy that's lights out for them. They should pitch him every day against us." . . . After watching the Sox overshift against Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro, and Carlos Delgado, is there anyone who would dare to call the strategy a failure? Francona was in charge of setting up Oakland's defense as Ken Macha's bench coach . . . Phillies manager Larry Bowa appears to be feeling some heat over his team's slow start, accusing a couple of reporters of backstabbing him. According to Paul Hagen of the Philadelphia Daily News, Bowa last week challenged reporters to "find out if I went out the other night. See if I got in by 11 o'clock." That isn't going to help Bowa . . . After losing series at home to the Dodgers and Padres, the Giants entered this weekend's series in Los Angeles four games under .500, the first time since May 23, 2000, they were that far under. Even with Bonds, the Giants ranked 13th in the league in runs . . . The Rangers started the weekend hitting .304, 98 points better than their short-lived captain, Alex Rodriguez . . . Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay put the knock on Garciaparra for not showing up last weekend in Fenway, even though he is rehabbing at Boston University. Kay had some bum information. Garciaparra was in the Sox clubhouse, though he ducked out early . . . Those nightly card games in the Sox clubhouse would be in trouble if Lou Piniella were around. The Devil Rays manager was upset to learn that a group of his players were playing dominoes after the team bus arrived, a violation of a team rule. "If they want to play, they should join a social club," Piniella said . . . More bad news for Bobby Jenks, the Angels' ballyhooed pitching prospect with the 100 mile-an-hour fastball. He was diagnosed with a stress reaction -- a precursor to a fracture -- in his right elbow. That's the same injury that sidelined Jenks for two months last season . . . With newspaper guys becoming regulars on radio and TV, it's only fair that broadcasters are taking to print. Jerry Remy has a book on the business -- "Watching Baseball: Discovering the Game within the Game" with Corey Sandler -- while Joe Castiglione weighs in with the anecdote-rich "Broadcast Rites and Sites: I Saw It on Radio with the Boston Red Sox," written with Douglas B. Lyons. Remy's book is available in bookstores, while Castiglione's book can be ordered at the National Book Network (1-800-462-6420). Both are available at amazon.com.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. 

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