The Cycle: First impressions

Ryne Sandberg
Yahoo! Sports

Before we get to the best series of the weekend, I want to address the recent rash of blown saves in the majors. It brings up the fact that great closers don't grow on trees. Closing takes a pitcher who has the right mental makeup, one that allows him to shake off a bad outing.

Great closers are simply hard to come by. Most pitchers enter the minor leagues hoping to become a starter in the majors. They get drafted as starting pitchers and they think they're starters because that's all they've done. That's why it's so difficult for them to give up being a starter early in their careers.

It doesn't occur to these starters that they should consider being a closer. Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs is one who should think about making the switch. With the way he seems to break down as a starter, he would be a perfect candidate to close – if he could just give up being a starting pitcher.

Look at what happened to Dennis Eckersley. He left the Cubs as a somewhat ineffective starter and went to the Oakland A's, where Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan turned him into an unhittable closer. Eckersley accepted the role and excelled at it, and his greatness as a closer got him into the Hall of Fame. (By the way, it's ridiculous that Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and Lee Smith are not in the Hall of Fame yet.)

To me, closing would be a sweet job. You come into the ninth inning with the game on the line and if you're successful, the whole team celebrates around you. It's too bad most pitchers don't look at it that way.

Home run

Baltimore Orioles

Record: 22-12
1st, AL East


Chicago White Sox

Record: 26-9
1st, AL Central

It's a matchup of probably the two best teams in the AL. The Orioles will miss the bat of Sammy Sosa, who went on the DL with an abscess on his left foot, but they still have the AL MVP – at this point – in shortstop Miguel Tejada (.348). White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi (.321) has been great.

Who's hot: Dustin Hermanson. The White Sox co-closer has not allowed a run in 15 appearances and is a perfect 7-for-7 in save opportunities.

Who's not: Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye. It's impressive that the White Sox have been able to win so many games with their four and five hitters both struggling. That means they're getting outstanding pitching from the entire staff.

Marquee matchup: Rodrigo Lopez (2-1, 4.46) vs. Mark Buehrle (5-1, 3.78) on Friday. Baltimore's starting pitching continues to surprise, while Chicago's rotation, led by Buehrle and Jon Garland, continues to be outstanding.

Prediction: Each team wins two of the four games.


Atlanta Braves

Record: 21-13
1st, NL East


Los Angeles Dodgers

Record: 20-14
1st, NL West

This series pits two of the NL's best teams. The Dodgers continue to find ways to win, and the Braves have heated up. It looks as if both clubs will win their divisions.

Who's hot: Hee Seop Choi. The Dodgers first baseman was in danger of losing his job if he didn't perform, but that's not the case now. He's hitting .529 with three home runs and eight RBIs over the past week.

Who's not: Dan Kolb. The Braves closer suffered his third loss and second blown save of the season after yielding three hits, one walk and two earned runs Thursday at Colorado. He has nine saves but also sports a 1-3 record and 6.28 ERA.

Marquee matchup: Mike Hampton (4-1, 2.05) vs. Odalis Perez (4-3, 4.50) on Saturday. Hampton, who threw a two-hit shutout against Houston in his last outing, is back to the form he had with the Astros. Perez is one of the best young left-handers in the league.

Prediction: Dodgers win two out of three games.


Chicago Cubs

Record: 15-18
3rd, NL Central


Washington Nationals

Record: 18-16
3rd, NL East

After dropping seven straight games, the Cubs have won three of their last four and are showing signs of turning their season around. They find themselves three games under .500, and with Scott Rolen going on the DL in St. Louis, the door might be open for the Cubs to make up a few games and get back into the race. Derrek Lee is on a tear, hitting .383 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs. Nick Johnson (.328) is swinging a steady bat for the Nationals.

Who's hot: Nick Johnson. The Nationals first baseman is hitting .405 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in his last 11 games.

Who's not: Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Dubois. Hollandsworth is one for his last 16 at-bats, while Dubois is 1-for-10. Yes, the Cubs are still trying to replace Moises Alou.

Marquee matchup: Carlos Zambrano (3-1, 3.61) vs. Livian Hernandez (5-2, 4.02) on Saturday. Two good righties go head to head. Hernandez has played the role of the ace for the young Nationals.

Prediction: Cubs win two out of three games.


New York Yankees

Record: 16-19
4th, AL East


Oakland Athletics

Record: 14-20
3rd, AL West

This series is interesting because of the Jason Giambi situation. Giambi, who's hitting just .195, has refused a demotion to the minor leagues. To let him work his way out a season-long slump, Joe Torre is starting Giambi at DH in the series opener against his old team. Giambi thinks he's starting to find his stroke, and I believe him because as a hitter when you start seeing the ball better, you start swinging at better pitches. He's been swinging outside the strike zone a lot this year, and that's uncharacteristic for him. It makes me think that all of the distractions during the winter and spring training are really bringing him down.

Who's hot: Tino Martinez. The Yankees first baseman has hit home runs in five straight games. He's just feeling comfortable back in his old stomping grounds and he finds himself in a good lineup.

Who's not: Giambi. He's 0-for-15 with 10 strikeouts.

Marquee matchup: Mike Mussina (3-2, 3.60) vs. Rich Harden (2-2, 1.94) on Friday. If the Yankees are going to continue playing good baseball, they'll need a good outing out of Mussina in a game like this.

Prediction: Yankees win all three games.

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