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Pitcher's problem caught in time

The difference, Tampa's John Hudek said, was like squeezing a normal baseball and one wrapped in foam. Things just didn't feel right.

There wasn't pain, but there was discoloration and swelling on the top of his right hand. There was tightness in his right forearm. And there was his fastball, usually clocked in the 92-94 range, dipping into the mid-80s.

According to tests done last week, the Houston relief ace has a blocked vein in his right arm, brought on by an impingement near his collarbone, and is prohibited from throwing. Hudek will be examined by another specialist this week in Denver, then probably a third. Surgery is a possibility, but he says he could return this season, definitely by next season.

He also says he is aware it could have been worse.

"When I heard I was impinging a vein, I took it the same way as if I was impinging an artery _ that's cutting off the circulation you have to live on," Hudek said from his Houston home. "It was scary for a few minutes. I thought my career was over. But talking with the physician here eased my mind a bit. The first thing he said was it was not life-threatening, and then he said it was not career-threatening."

But doctors said the blockage could have worsened and ended his career had he not stopped pitching.

The 1985 Plant High graduate was one of the good news stories last year: a six-year minor-leaguer called up to the majors in late April who had 15 saves in his first 16 opportunities and was selected to the All-Star Game. He was on his way back there this year, recording saves in his first six chances and posting a 2-0 record and 0.68 ERA, when the problem developed. He first thought it was a dead-arm period all pitchers go through, then realized it was more.

"With the year I had and the year I was starting out with this year, it is very frustrating," Hudek said. "But for my health reasons, I'm glad this was found out now. Rather than me thinking I was going through dead-arm time and keep throwing and my career being over.

"I'm looking at this positively: that I'll be back soon. If it comes to it and I'm not back this year, I'll be ready next year."

Rising Sox: The disappointing White Sox showed some signs of life by ripping off seven straight wins, and they apparently have California pitcher Chuck Finley to thank for it. After beating the Sox June 18, Finley said: "After the first inning, I felt those guys were ready to roll over and die." The Sox objected to the implication they were dogging it. "They've been very up," manager Terry Bevington said. "The guy in Anaheim made some kind of comment evidently, and so everyone thinks they weren't up. That guy was wrong."

Tampa tango: OF Luis Gonzalez is very proud of the number of Tampa Bay products who have reached the major leagues. But when he was traded from the Astros to the Cubs last week, he took the job of fellow Tampa product Ozzie Timmons, who went 11-for-22 after winning the leftfield job a week earlier. With Gonzalez (who had a .390 career average at Wrigley Field) now aboard, Timmons will go back to playing only against left-handed pitchers. Timmons took the demotion well, and Cubs manager Jim Riggleman promised: "I'm not going to let Ozzie die on the vine. Ozzie's shown he can hit in this league."

Thank-you speech: Ron Gant won some Comeback Player of the Year awards with Atlanta in 1990, when he returned from a season in the minors to hit .303 with 32 homers, 84 RBI and 33 steals. Gant, now with Cincinnati, is in position to win another after missing all of 1994 with a broken leg. He entered Saturday hitting .299 with 17 homers and 47 RBI. Said Gant: "I don't want to make it a habit."

Amazin' Mess: The Mets' big-name, big-money players _ Bret Saberhagen, John Franco and Bobby Bonilla _ are bracing for a shakeup.

"If we don't win, we're going to be the first guys out of here," Franco said. "It's not a secret. We're the highest-paid players on the team. They would dump us in a heartbeat. I wouldn't be surprised if all three or at least two of the three (are traded by the end of the season)." Saberhagen may be pitching to leave, saying he has been miserable lately and "I'd rather be happy someplace else."

Miscellany: The All-Star rosters will be announced today at 5 p.m. According to a source quoted in the New York Times, suspended pitcher Dwight Gooden "has no chance" of being reinstated this season. Three of the four pitchers in the Pirates rotation (Esteban Loaiza, Steve Parris and John Ericks) had no major-league experience before this season. San Diego reportedly has expressed interest in Toronto OF Joe Carter and/or 2B Roberto Alomar, both former Padres. Eric Karros' home run for Los Angeles on Friday night was only the third allowed by Colorado pitchers in a span of 75 innings. Rockies starters went into Saturday with a string of 50 innings without a homer. Otis Nixon swiped second in the first inning Friday against Seattle for Texas' first steal in nine games.