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A grand night for Sosa

• His 39th and 40th homers match Maris’ pace and give the Cubs a victory, too.

CHRIS WALSH Citizen Sportswriter

PHOENIX – The script could not have been written any better for Sammy Sosa.

Bases loaded with no outs in the eighth inning and the game on the line. With a two-run home run in the sixth suddenly serving as a foreshadow, Sosa didn’t even have to tease the near-sellout crowd at Bank One Ballpark as he bore down in the batter’s box.

Immediately after Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Alan Embree delivered his first pitch – a fastball – the man who likes to blow kisses to TV monitors for his family smacked a whopper over the center-field wall.

To the delight of baseball fans everywhere, Sosa had career home run No. 247, but his first grand slam.

”I used to think about it (hitting a grand slam) a lot,” said Sosa after last night’s 6-2 victory in which he drove in every Chicago Cubs run. ”But then I said to myself that I still have an opportunity to play. It’s going to happen.”

Still, after registering season home runs 39 and 40, Sosa couldn’t help but smile in the clubhouse. No player in the history of the game had ever hit so many homers without a slam as Bob Horner had the previous record at 209.

Even Cubs pitcher Kevin Tapani hit a grand slam last week against the Atlanta Braves, and that was the first home run of his career.

”He got me that night,” Sosa said with a huge grin.

Last night was simply Sosa’s night, as this is turning into his season. Sosa’s hitting .311 – almost 60 points higher than his career average – and leads the National League with 102 runs batted in and 264 total bases.

Despite being an obvious MVP candidate, it’s the home runs that have thrust him into the spotlight. Already matching his career high, the 29-year-old is on pace to hit 61 home runs, which would tie Roger Maris’ single-season record.

Joining him in the chase are Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and Greg Vaughn. With two months to go, McGwire, the current HR leader at 44, said he believes there’s still no clear-cut favorite.

”Honestly, it’s dead even,” McGwire said. ”You just don’t know what’s going to happen, how they’re going to pitch, which teams are going to be in the pennant race, which teams you’re playing in the second half that are in the pennant race. There are a lot of things that can happen.”

When asked who has the best chance of breaking the record, both Sosa and Griffey, now with 40 homers each, have repeatedly replied ”Mark.”

”He’s bigger out of the three,” Griffey said.

Yet they are still on pace, with Vaughn in the hunt at 37.

”I think the guy that has the best chance is the guy who is the most disciplined,” San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn said. ”Sammy was a free swinger before this year. This year, he’s a lot more disciplined. He’s taking a lot more pitches, waiting for a pitch that he can handle.”

After failing to make much of an impact with the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox, Sosa first demonstrated his home run prowess after being traded to the Cubs with pitcher Ken Patterson for outfielder George Bell.

His first full season, 1993, Sosa became the first Cub to hit 30 home runs while stealing 30 bases. In 1996, he hit 40 home runs in 126 games before missing the last month of the season with a broken hand.

”He’s always been a good player,” former teammate and Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux said. ”He’s always hit for power. He’s always played defense, and he’s always come to play. I think that’s probably the best thing about Sammy, is he comes to play. He works hard. Maybe it just shows that hard work does pay off. He’s always been good, but he’s worked at it.

”I remember being there, he’d be at the park early. He’d hit every day before batting practice.”

But Sosa may have been playing too hard. Not too many can claim a bad season after hitting 36 home runs with 119 runs batted in, but Sosa can. After signing a four-year, $42.5 million contract extension, he hit .236 with men in scoring position and had a franchise-record 174 strikeouts as the Cubs finished the 1997 season just 68-94.

At times, Sosa looked as though he was trying to justify the money with every at-bat, and he’ll be the first to tell you he was overswinging.

It’s not too difficult to see why, though. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Sosa once worked for $4 a day selling orange juice, shining shoes and washing cars. He didn’t play his first organized baseball until he was 14.

The physical tools have always been there. That’s why Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland concentrated on changing Sosa’s outlook.

”Most power hitters think they have to hit it 600 feet.” Pentland said. ”As a hitting instructor, you’re trying to get them to make as much contact as possible. What we did in spring training was try and slow him down, and make him realize that when it goes over the fence it still counts as one home run, not five home runs.”

Sosa still takes extra batting practice every day, but now has Pentland throwing him balls at a high, slow arc. It forces him to wait on the ball, develop patience and not try to pull every pitch to left field.

”Sometimes I swing so hard,” Sosa said. ”But not right now. What I’m doing right now is stay relaxed and go to right field more. Stay positive.”

Meanwhile, the Cubs built a lineup around their slugger, adding the likes of left fielder Henry Rodriguez, second baseman Mickey Morandini and shortstop Jeff Blauser via trades and free agency. With first baseman Mark Grace having his typical season (.318 average, 10 home runs and 53 RBIs) and the pitching staff exceeding expectations, the 60-46 Cubs trail the first-place Houston Astros by just 2 1/2 games in the Central Division.

”We have a better team in ’98 than ’97,” Sosa said. ”Every night, we have the attitude that we’re going to have a good game. Every time I go to home plate, I don’t feel like I have to hit a home run every time like I used to.”

In a word, the difference is maturity. Teammate Lance Johnson calls it baseball wisdom and claims he’s never seen Sosa so confident, so consistent. Baseball fans in Chicago are ”going nuts,” he said, and for good reason as Sosa now takes aim at ending another streak.

Through yesterday, the nineyear veteran had played in 1,194 games without reaching the postseason – the third-longest active streak in baseball behind Tampa Bay’s Dave Martinez (1,524) and Cleveland’s Travis Fryman (1,198).

”I’m being patient right now,” Sosa said. ”You can do a lot in two months. But you have to stay focused every day.”

Two months? How about one month?

In June, Sosa put on a hitting display never seen before in baseball, churning out a singlemonth record 20 home runs (breaking Detroit’s Rudy York’s mark of 18 from August 1937) to lead the Cubs back into the thick of the playoff hunt.

”I’ve had the best seat in the house,” said Grace, who stands in the on-deck circle when Sosa hits. ”The proudest thing I can say is in the month of June when he hit 20 home runs, he wasn’t intentionally walked once. The bad side is I didn’t have anyone on base. He was driving them all in.

”He’s one of the streakiest hitters I’ve ever seen. My hot streaks will go a week or 10 days where you get a couple or three hits a game. Sammy’s hot streaks are a couple of hits a game with a couple of home runs with five RBIs type of thing. His hot streaks are better than anyone else’s.

”They’re beyond imagination.”

For the Cubs, only a World Series championship could serve as a perfect ending to this impromptu year. For Sosa, however, his season is already one for ages, with history waiting in the shadows.

”He’s just an extraordinarily talented athlete,” Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said. ”As a career minor-league player, I know how hard hitting is. It’s so hard to hit successfully even against a minorleague pitcher. For him to be doing what he’s doing, he’s putting himself into the elite of the game.

”It’s something I’ll reflect back on some day and think I was there while he was doing it.”


PHOENIX – The Diamondbacks received good news on the injury front when an MRI test on Brian Anderson’s elbow found nothing wrong.

Although Anderson, who said his arm was stiff and numb after he rode in a taxi in Los Angeles, will miss tonight’s scheduled start, he won’t go on the disabled list.

”All the news was as good as you could hope from something like that,” manager Buck Showalter said. ”He’s feeling better today. He’s obviously probably a little embarrassed by the whole thing, but he won’t stay embarrassed very long. That’s what we like about him so much.”

Right-hander Bob Wolcott, who was called up from Tucson, will start in Anderson’s place. The team will make a corresponding move today.

Meanwhile, Travis Lee is still nursing a groin strain and underwent an MRI, but the results weren’t known. The team expects to make a determination of his status today.

Third baseman Matt Williams (foot) started taking some swings off a tee and will probably join Tucson for a rehab assignment later this week. He’s due to be activated from the 15-day disabled list Aug. 2, which should be Anderson’s next start.

• • •

Arizona’s major league-leading streak of consecutive games with at least one extra-base hit ended at 91 last night as Steve Trachsel and Terry Mulholland combined to toss a threehitter.

The streak tied Cleveland’s mark for the longest in the majors this season, and started April 14. It included 149 doubles, 24 triples and 96 home runs.

Tony Batista had two hits last night, and Andy Fox had the other as the Diamondbacks were without their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters in the lineup – Lee and Williams.

Meanwhile, Trachsel (10-5) won his fourth straight game and dropped his ERA to 3.93.

• • •

Despite last night’s grand slam by Sammy Sosa off Alan Embree, the bullpen continues to be a bright spot of late, allowing just two runs and four hits in 9.2 innings over the past five games.

In their past 14 contests, the relievers have allowed 10 earned runs over 39 innings, for a 2.31 ERA.

As a comparison, on June 25, the bullpen had a collective 5.37 ERA, while the starters were at 4.86.

Entering yesterday’s game, the bullpen had a season-low 4.86 ERA, while the starters were at 4.84.

• • •

The Diamondbacks have a number of players putting up impressive numbers in the minors:

Tucson Sidewinders (Triple-A): Third baseman Ron Hartman hit .380 from July 20-26 to raise his average to .329 with four home runs, 12 RBIs, a .512 slugging percentage and .349 on-base percentage. For the season, he’s hitting .281 with 15 doubles, eight home runs and 43 RBIs.

Double-A: Right-hander Erik Sabel, on loan to the Texas Rangers affiliate in Tulsa, is 4-0 with a 3.71 ERA.

High Desert Mavericks (A-plus): Right-hander Joe Verplancke is 7-1 in 32 relief appearances. Opponents are batting .193 against him.

South Bend Silver Hawks (A): Lefthander Chris Cervantes went 1-1 with a 1.32 ERA in nine appearances. Outfielder Brian Gordon hit .385 with a home run and two RBIs last weekend. For the month, he’s hitting .305 with two home runs and 15 RBIs.

Lethbridge Black Diamonds (Rookieplus): Infielder Belvani Martinez is hitting .387 since July 18 to raise his July average to .361. He’s second on the team with a .347 average and first with 15 steals.

Tucson Diamondbacks (Rookie): Left-hander Justin Crivello has a 1.76 ERA as opponents are hitting just .150 against him this month.

• • •

Sunday’s 5-3 loss in Los Angeles marked the 22nd time in the last 24 games that Arizona played in a game decided by three runs or fewer. In those games, the Diamondbacks are 10-14. . . . During the recent seven-game trip, Arizona became the first team in the majors to eclipse the 800-strikeout mark. The team has 816 K’s. . . . Valley resident Glen Campbell performed the national anthem on his guitar yesterday. Campbell is heard every night at Bank One Ballpark as a recording of ”Tequila” is played during the Diamondbacks Hat Shuffle.

Game Highlights

Fifth inning

DIAMONDBACKS: Karim Garcia walked. Jorge Fabregas flied out to center. Tony Batista singled, Garcia to second. Willie Blair sacrificed Garcia to third, Batista to second. Andy Fox singled to left, Garcia and Batista scored, Fox thrown out trying to advance to second, 7-6-3-4.

Two runs, two hits, no errors, none left. DIAMONDBACKS 2, CUBS 0 .

Sixth inning

CUBS: Steve Trachsel grounded out to third. Lance Johnson grounded out to second. Mickey Morandini singled to left and went to second on a wild pitch. Sammy Sosa homered a 1-1 pitch to right, his 39th of the season. Mark Grace walked. Henry Rodriguez grounded out to second.

Two runs, two hits, no errors, one left. DIAMONDBACKS 2, CUBS 2 .

Eighth inning

CUBS: Trachsel singled to right-center. Johnson singled to center, Trachsel to second. Alan Embree relieved Willie Blair. Morandini reached on an infield single, Trachsel to third, Johnson to second. Sosa homered the first pitch to center, his 40th. Grace popped out to third in foul territory. Rodriguez flied out to center. Jose Hernandez walked. Tyler Houston flied out to left.

Four runs, four hits, no errors, one left. CUBS 6, DIAMONDBACKS 2 .

- Chris Walsh

PHOTO CAPTIONS: The Associated Press

Sammy Sosa watches his grand-slam homer leave Bank One Ballpark.

Sammy Sosa is congratulated by Chicago third base coach Tom Gamboa after Sosa’s grand slam last night in Phoenix.

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