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AROUND THE NL

ASTROS: Former Crystal River High standout Mike Hampton struck out nine in five innings in a 4-2 win over Montreal.

BRAVES: Manager Bobby Cox was ejected for arguing from the dugout in the first inning of Atlanta's 1-1 tie with the Mets. Cox was ejected by plate umpire Gregg Gibson after he made comments after a called third strike on 1B Fred McGriff that ended the first. Umpires, still upset over the Roberto Alomar spitting incident last September, have said they will instantly eject players, managers and coaches for the slightest arguments. "I don't remember ever getting thrown out of a spring game," Cox said.

PADRES: Hideki Irabu, the Japanese star who says his lifelong ambition has been to pitch for the Yankees, could end up spending the summer along baseball's back roads in one of the independent leagues. Last week, Don Nomura, Irabu's agent, sent all big-league GMs a letter saying Irabu would return to Japan today and sit out the season if he wasn't dealt to the Yankees by Tuesday, but Irabu might return and seek a deal in an independent league to stay in shape. One catch: The Japanese commissioner was quoted as saying Irabu would be suspended if he played in such a league. The Padres, who own his rights, say they won't be rushed into a deal. "We're just doing business as usual," GM Kevin Towers said. Bruce Bochy, the 1996 NL Manager of the Year, received a two-year extension through 1999, with a club option for 2000.

PIRATES: RHPs Jon Lieber and Jason Schmidt are the only pitchers assured starting jobs, and RHPs Francisco Cordova and Esteban Loaiza probably will join them. Manager Gene Lamont has said LHP Chris Peters has been eliminated from starting contention, leaving only LHP Steve Cooke or RHP Rich Loiselle for the last spot.

_ TIMES WIRES

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