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Injured Cubs closer improving fast

Two weeks after tearing a muscle in his shoulder, Cubs closer Tom Gordon is feeling so good he's talking about an early return.

"I'm really optimistic about this. I think everything's going to go well," he said Wednesday after returning to camp. "I feel very strong. The muscle in my shoulder is very strong. I don't have any soreness in my arm. Hopefully that's a good sign."

Manager Don Baylor is more cautious. As much as the Cubs want Gordon back, this isn't a blister but a serious injury that's going to take time to heal.

Gordon is scheduled to meet this weekend with team doctor Michael Schafer, and the Cubs will have a better idea on his timetable after that.

"We're just going to have to wait," Baylor said. "Three months or six months, it's just a guess."

Gordon was pitching March 5 against the White Sox when he felt a cramp in the back of his right arm. Exams showed he had torn the teres major, a muscle in the back of the shoulder that controls rotation and helps stabilize the shoulder joint.

The unusual injury isn't career-threatening and doesn't require surgery. But it takes a long time to heal, and the Cubs initially said Gordon would be out at least three months.

The news was a bitter disappointment to Gordon, who hoped he was over his injuries.

"I was down about it," he said. "I've worked so hard to get myself ready for the season. I know that I was really prepared. I was in good shape and I felt good about what I was doing and where I wanted to be. Unfortunately, it happened."

BUCK IMPROVING: The family of Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck said brain surgery Tuesday aimed at controlling Parkinson's disease has left him feeling better than he has in six or seven years.

"Over the last three months, I think the greatest day we have had as a family and he has had as a patient was yesterday," his son, Fox broadcaster Joe Buck, said. "The way he came out of the surgery was amazing, considering the condition he was in going into the surgery."

Joe Buck said doctors believe his father, 77, can leave the hospital in about three weeks.

"This is tremendously encouraging," he said.

GWYNN JOINS ESPN: Former Padres star Tony Gwynn was hired by ESPN and will work as an analyst during games and studio shows. Jeff Brantley, who like Gwynn retired after last season, also was hired by the network as an analyst. Gwynn will work his TV schedule around his role as volunteer assistant coach at San Diego State.

BREWERS: Right-hander Chad Fox had his pitching arm in a sling a day after X-rays revealed a problem behind the elbow. "We don't know if it is a bone chip or what," said Fox, who rebounded from three operations to pitch last season and had been designated the closer this spring. Milwaukee acquired catcher Paul Bako and pitcher Jose Cabrera from the Braves for catcher Henry Blanco.

DODGERS: Left-hander Kazuhisa Ishii was moved back from his scheduled start to allow him more time to feel comfortable with the American throwing routine. After his first three spring starts, Ishii expressed concerns about feeling too strong on the mound.

EXPOS: Right-hander Javier Vazquez had an MRI on his right elbow and will be sidelined for five days with some soreness. "It tightened up after my last start," he said. "The MRI was just precautionary."

PIRATES: Outfielder Derek Bell, stung by criticism, backed off comments that he'll go into "Operation Shutdown" if the team doesn't give him its starting rightfield job. Bell provoked an angry reaction in Pittsburgh and became the subject of ridicule in the media after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted him as saying he deserves a starting spot without having to compete for it. Bell said the comments didn't convey his true sentiments. "I'm scared to go back to Pittsburgh," Bell said. "Everybody's going to want to kill me."

REDS: Shortstop Barry Larkin was relieved after a medical exam found inflammation but no serious injury to his groin. Larkin, who missed most of last season with torn groin muscles, is expected back in the lineup by this weekend and should be ready for opening day.

_ TIMES WIRES

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