The Houston Astros may have picked up a big advantage for the stretch run. John Hudek, their All-Star closer in 1994, returned to active duty last week after more than a year battling injuries.
"It's going to take me a little time to get my feet wet," the Tampa native, 29, said. "I'm going to be building arm strength the whole time I'm back. They just want me to be strong come mid-August and September and help the team."
The Astros plan to work Hudek in slowly, using him in a setup role even though closer Todd Jones is on the disabled list.
Billy Wagner will handle the job for now, but there is no question the Astros will be better armed for battle if Hudek regains his 1994 form. After starting that season in the minors, he earned a trip to the All-Star Game and finished the season saving 16 of 18 games, posting a 2.97 ERA, holding opponents to a .174 average and finishing second in the rookie of the year balloting.
The Plant High graduate started the 1995 season strong, but began to struggle mightily in June. Doctors diagnosed a circulation problem and had to remove a right rib to relieve it, ending his season. Hudek came back for spring training, but suffered additional setbacks _ a torn muscle in his neck and a fractured left rib.
Rehabilitation took him to Kissimmee and Tucson, Ariz., then, finally, back to the major leagues Monday in Miami. His pitches are clocked now in the upper 80s, still a bit short of the days he was blowing away hitters with a 94-mph fastball.
"I was excited just to get back on the mound," Hudek said. "I had a lot of adrenaline going."
MAKES YOU WONDER: In the first two seasons after signing a three-year, $12-million contract, Milwaukee's Greg Vaughn, slowed some by injuries, batted .238 with 36 home runs and 114 RBI. Now playing for a new contract, Vaughn went into the weekend leading the majors with 90 RBI while hitting .294 with 28 home runs.
REDBIRD RALLY: One reason the Cardinals have taken charge of the NL Central: A terrific 22-8 record within the division. "This is the reason we're in first place," OF Ron Gant said. "If we keep playing well in the division, we're going to put some ground between us and the rest of the teams."
EXIT ROUTE: OF Mike Greenwell may be on the way out after 12 seasons in Boston. He is recovering from an injured finger but doesn't see much of a role for himself with the struggling Sox and wouldn't fight a trade to a contender. "I think it would be an unjust and unfair thing to do if they brought me back to just sit on the bench," he said. "I would definitely be talking to them about trying to do something at that point."
HIT MAN: Rockies rookie Jamey Wright got his first major-league win _ and first hit _ last week. The double was well stroked, but his baserunning needed some work. "I spiked myself going into second," Wright said. "Then I spiked the third baseman going into third. But it was nice to get dirty for a change. I don't think I've been dirty since high school."
SEAY WHAT: White Sox first-round draft pick Bobby Seay, the star left-hander from Sarasota, filed a grievance with Major League Baseball seeking to become a free agent because the Sox did not offer him a contract within the first 15 days after the draft. Sox GM Ron Schueler says the grievance is a "technicality" because Seay told the team to deal with his agent, Scott Boras.
MISCELLANY: Braves players will get an additional $188.50 in laundry money during their 19-day trip. Reds GM Jim Bowden says there are "no untouchables," presumably including Barry Larkin as potential trade bait. The latest Bobby Bonilla trade rumors involve the Cubs, Giants and now the Padres. San Diego is moving closer to a deal that would send two pitchers to Baltimore for Bonilla. The trade might be contingent on one sending 1B Eddie Murray from the Indians to his original team, the Orioles, and increase the chance of one sending Cubs 1B Mark Grace to Cleveland.
_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.
Since new manager John Boles and hitting coach Jeff Pentland took over, the Marlins have come alive at the plate. Here are some key statistics from the first half and under Boles (through Friday):
W-L 40-47 6-3
Pct. .460 .667
Runs/G 3.75 7.7
Hits/G 8.3 11.1
HR/G 94 .88
BA .249 .314