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NL Roundup

Last piece of hardware

Quick Wild Card update...
The Cubs are lucky that all wins and losses are worth the same. With two teams just a step behind, the Cubs lost three out of four games to the Reds and Mets. Included in this debacle is a 4-3, extra-inning loss to the other team from New York. LaTroy Hawkins surrendered a game-tying three-run homer to Victor Diaz, before Craig Brazell took Kent Mercker out of the yard in the 11th.

Still, with 5 games left in the season, the Cubs sit atop the Wild Card standings, albeit now sharing the perch with the Giants, with the Astros half a game behind. So, with five days of baseball remaining, the Wild Card is everything Bud Selig says it's supposed to be.

Rookie of the Year
In some ways, the ROY is more special than the MVP or Cy Young. For of those three accolades, the ROY is the only one that you have only one chance to win. Every year a hitter spends in the big leagues, he has a chance to win an MVP. And for pitchers, they have double the opportunity, as they can potentially win both awards in the same season. Granted, this line of reasoning is a bit specious, but it does give the award some distinction.

This year's race comes down to three participants: two Padres and a Pirate.

The dark horse candidate of the bunch is Padres' setup man Akinori Otsuka, owner of the second funkiest delivery in baseball -- while Hideo Nomo manages bring employed by the Dodgers. In the middle of his delivery, he simply stops, as if someone pressed the pause button on the Tivo machine. But then after a split second, he starts again, after a quick tap of his pitching hand on the glove. It's a motion never seen in Major League Baseball before.

Aesthetically, it may be questionable, but no one questions its effectiveness. Apparently, the hitch bothers hitters because no one has figured out how to hit the guy. He's given the Padres 75 innings of quality work out of the bullpen and has actually been stingier with runs than closer Trevor Hoffman. No one in recent memory gets more strikeouts with fastballs in the high-80s than Otsuka, who is averaging 10.5 K/9 IP. In Wednesday's game, he threw three consecutive fastballs past Pedro Feliz that made him appear like Feliz was sitting on the changeup. The same Feliz had no trouble redirecting a 99-mph fastball from Eric Gagne into the bleachers earlier this year.

Unfortunately, Otsuka is a middle reliever, and even if he's been as good as any setup man in baseball, it's unlikely he'll continue the tradition of veteran Japanese players winning this award. Still, a 1.79 ERA is impressive in whatever form it comes in.

Perhaps, the best player in this year's rookie crop is Pirates' left fielder Jason Bay. After sitting the first month of the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, the 26-year old has been nothing short of excellent. With 25 home runs and 79 RBI, he'll be the clear leader in both categories among all rookies, despite the fact that he'll finish with just a shade over 400 at-bats.

In addition, he was under as much pressure as one could be in Pittsburgh -- where they haven't played an important game this century -- being the prime prospect they got in return for Brian Giles. He might never put up the numbers Giles did, but if he continues to post an OPS of .933, you won't find any complaints coming from the steel mills.

Other than some pretty lofty strikeout totals and the fact he's a bit old for a rookie, there isn't much not to like about Bay's future (actually, playing in Pittsburgh might not be that auspicious). In terms of production rate, there's no question that Bay was the best rookie. However, missing 25% of the season is a significant factor no matter how productive you are while playing.

Life's good if you're a shortstop playing professional baseball. Just ask Derek Jeter (who my brother spotted at the Spider Club in Los Angeles with Jessica Alba). Of course, you could ask Khalil Greene as well. My guess is that he elicits a few shrieks from the tanned beauties of San Diego every time they see him sprint around the bases with his long blonde locks flopping around.

This isn't meant to belittle anything that Greene has accomplished this year. Before fracturing the index finger of his left hand, the Padres' shortstop had put up very respectable numbers. In just under 500 at-bats, the rookie has belted 15 homers and smacked 31 doubles. Given the explosion of power numbers over the past few years, these numbers aren't particularly eye-catching. However, when you compare his statistics to that of other shortstops, they earn a bit more respect. In addition, Greene is obligated to play half of his games in a park very hospitable to pitchers.

His counting stats (RBI, runs) will be hurt a bit by having to spend the last three weeks of the season as an uber-talented pinch runner. It doesn't change the fact that he's been the best rookie this year.

Special commendation this week goes to the Montreal Expos who will now move to Washington D.C, where their crowds will now be bigger than at the average junior college football game.

An even greater commendation goes to every fan that takes the time to see the last Major League Baseball game ever played in Montreal. In their antepenultimate game, the Expos attracted all of 3,923 fans and then followed that up with a rousing total of 5,416.

The Associated Press predicted a crowd between 20,000 and 25,00 for the final showdown, but I'll believe it when I see it. The people in Montreal care about as much about the Expos as the people in San Jose care about the Earthquakes.