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Still Waiting for Finley to Hit the Jackpot, or the Curveball

Steve Finley did not play Saturday afternoon at Angel Stadium, a manager’s decision that allowed him a couple more hours in front of a television screen, holding last season’s mechanics up against this season’s.

He learned a little more about his swing, the inexpert passes he makes at baseballs that have resulted in a career-low .213 batting average, along with something approaching career-high despair.

The symbol of infinity tattooed into his right shoulder was never meant to imply he intended on playing forever, but he’s a young 40, and says he is healed from the front-shoulder disorder that killed the early months of his first season in Anaheim.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way, not after the Dodgers stopped calling and the Angels came shopping. Hadn’t he just hit 36 home runs? Hadn’t he spent the better part of last August and September chest high on the Dodger Stadium wall, bringing back home run balls? Hadn’t the Angels seen it too, pushing $14 million across the table in December?

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So now every day the man who will be responsible for that contract, General Manager Bill Stoneman, watches from a second-story box and waits for the production.

“It’s a performance business,” he said. “If there’s somebody who’s performing well, that’s the person who should have the opportunity.”

Finley is 40, Stoneman is reminded. And he is asked, as a baseball evaluator, is this a slump or is this the end?

“His performance isn’t what we expected,” he said. “It’s certainly not what we expected. If you’re saying do I see any signs of [age], no.”

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As for the contract, he said, “The money’s spent. We’re committed to the money. Once that’s done, you’ve got to move to the next thing.”

And every day the man who will grant him playing time, Manager Mike Scioscia, wonders who will play center field, and what that means for the rest of his lineup.

Speaking generally and specifically omitting Finley, Scioscia said, “As a player, you’re the first one to realize you’re slipping a little bit, but you’re the last one to know you’ve fallen off the slope and it’s over.”

Still, Scioscia probably will play Finley today against Boston Red Sox right-hander Jonathan Papelbon, and in the near future probably will err on the side of playing Finley most days.

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Scioscia hated the analogy, but think of the guy sitting before the slot machine, unwilling to walk away because, gosh, what if the next quarter is the one? What if Steve Finley was about to pay off, was about to quit fidgeting in the batters’ box and quit lunging at breaking balls and quit popping out to right field, and hit a liner into a gap?

“You don’t go from doing what I did last year to this,” Finley said.

Meantime, Chone Figgins played center field against the Red Sox, and on a day he wanted to load up on left-handed hitters against Boston right-hander Bronson Arroyo, Scioscia played Maicer Izturis at third base and Jeff DaVanon in left, Casey Kotchman at first base and Darin Erstad at designated hitter.

The left-handed Finley hit the video room, then led the line of postgame handshakes after a 4-2 victory.

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It has become a day-to-day process for Scioscia. He expected Finley to be one of his constants, batting fifth behind Garret Anderson, and helping to protect Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero. Now Finley has four extra-base hits in 107 at-bats since coming off the disabled list in mid-July, and is hitting .115 in August, and generally hits eighth.

Angel coaches see bat speed. They see foot speed. They see decent defense. And, for the moment, they don’t see alternatives that are so far and away better than playing Finley in center field that it’s worth a permanent change. Not today, anyway.

“I appreciate the opportunity he’s given me to try to work this out,” Finley said. “It can’t be easy to do and there’s nobody that feels worse about it than I do. The fans in this ballpark have not seen me anywhere close to what I can do. It’s disappointing for them, I know. It’s disappointing for myself. I know they’re seeing this guy, saying, ‘Why the hell did we go out and get this guy? He’s terrible.’ ”

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Bats and Pieces

With six weeks left, here are the major award front-runners:

NL MVP: Derrek Lee, Cubs; Albert Pujols, Cardinals; Miguel Cabrera, Marlins; Andruw Jones, Braves; Carlos Lee, Brewers; Morgan Ensberg, Astros; Aramis Ramirez, Cubs.

AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees; Manny Ramirez, Red Sox; David Ortiz, Red Sox; Vladimir Guerrero, Angels; Mark Teixeira, Rangers; Gary Sheffield, Yankees.

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NL Cy Young: Chris Carpenter, Cardinals; Roger Clemens, Astros; Roy Oswalt, Astros; Dontrelle Willis, Marlins, Pedro Martinez, Mets; John Smoltz, Braves; Chad Cordero, Nationals.

AL Cy Young: Roy Halladay, Blue Jays; Jon Garland, White Sox; Mark Buehrle, White Sox; Bartolo Colon, Angels; Mariano Rivera, Yankees; Kenny Rogers, Rangers.

NL rookie of the year: Rickie Weeks, Brewers; Jeff Francis, Rockies; Willy Taveras, Astros; Garrett Atkins, Rockies; Clint Barmes, Rockies.

AL rookie of the year: Huston Street, A’s; Robinson Cano, Yankees; Gustavo Chacin, Blue Jays; Tad Iguchi, White Sox; Russ Adams, Blue Jays; Nick Swisher, A’s.

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Ben Affleck, whose devotion to the Red Sox has cast him as the poor man’s Jack Nicholson (without the maniacal choking gestures), lives with this every year: The Red Sox haven’t won on his birthday -- Aug. 15 -- since 1997, according to Sportsbybrooks.com.

Observation by Giant Manager Felipe Alou in the San Francisco Chronicle, after Friday night’s 5-4 loss, in which the Cardinals scored five ninth-inning runs: “We have some guys here who have been overworked, whose arms are tired.”

Reaction by Giant reliever Jason Christiansen, who gave up the last of it: “Really? He’s just now figuring it out? ... Of course our arms are weary. We’re getting run through like a turnstile.”

Giant relievers have thrown 377 1/3 innings, behind only the Reds and the Padres in the National League.

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If it’s Sunday, Barry Bonds must be optimistic about returning this season. We’ll let you know what Wednesday brings.

“Nothing new here,” Alou said while holding a transcript of Bonds’ new buoyancy last week. “I’m glad he feels better. He’s a super hitter.”

And yet, he said, “The thing is, we’re in the National League, where you’ve got to practice in the field too.... I believe Barry could hit big league pitching right now, but what about baserunning and defense?”

Former big leaguer Dave Hollins, first base coach for the Eastern League Binghamton Mets, was suspended indefinitely Monday after charging the opposing team’s bench during a game in Portland, Maine.

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Another minor league moment: Bobby Bragan, the former major league manager who’s still at it at 87, arrived at home plate to greet the umpires Tuesday night leading a seeing-eye dog.

This is how the Royals are going: In the midst of their 19-game losing streak, they tried to honor the 1985 World Series team Aug. 12 and were rained out, then tried to honor Bret Saberhagen on Aug. 13 and were rained out.

Sadly, the rain went away and the baseball came back. The streak’s over, but maybe it’s time for Jose Lima to sing the national anthem again.

How the Royals are Going II: Curt Schilling will make his first big league start since April 23 on Thursday, and he’ll make it in Kansas City. In six starts against the Royals, Schilling is 3-0 with a 1.64 earned-run average.

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The Red Sox had hoped to have Keith Foulke come off the disabled list as Schilling was moving to the rotation, and it might have worked out that way had Foulke not taken a line drive off his pitching arm in a batting-practice exercise Friday.

Mike Timlin will close in the time between Schilling and Foulke, whose return from arthroscopic knee surgery was mildly complicated by the Trot Nixon comebacker.

Schilling has seven starts, give or take one, and Foulke about five weeks to have the Red Sox postseason ready, assuming they hold off the Yankees and/or the A’s or Angels. The Red Sox saw some of the old Schilling over two innings Friday night against the Angels, particularly in the sharpness of his splitter. The overpowering fastball hasn’t come yet, but it might as Schilling edges his pitch count to 100. As it is, he’ll probably be limited to about 70 Thursday night, which should be enough to beat the Royals.

Right fielder Jeff Francoeur and catcher Brian McCann are leading the Braves into the post-Chipper Jones era; Francoeur as the 23rd overall pick in the 2002 draft and McCann as a second-rounder in that draft.

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Born six weeks and a few miles apart in the Atlanta area in 1984, they arrived in the major leagues a month apart. After 119 at-bats, Francoeur is batting .370 with 10 home runs and 29 RBI. In 110 at-bats, McCann is batting .291 with four homers and 13 RBI.

Julio Franco was in his third big league season and playing for his second of eight teams (including the Indians twice) when future teammates Francoeur and McCann were born. Franco turns 47 Tuesday.

On fan reaction to baseball’s drug cheats: Jason Giambi was cheered in New York until he couldn’t hit, at which point he was booed until he showed he could hit again, when he was cheered.

Rafael Palmeiro was cheered in Baltimore, which will continue until, well, see above.

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Former Dodger Todd Hundley was charged with driving under the influence and endangering the life and health of children -- his two young daughters -- after being arrested Aug. 12 near his home outside Chicago. He told the Chicago Tribune he had taken the painkiller Vicodin for his still ailing back on an empty stomach and became “discombobulated.”

He was given a sobriety test in his own driveway, during which he was ordered to stand on one leg and count to 30. His back, he said, did not hold up, and he failed.

“I couldn’t do it,” he told the paper.


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