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Turning 40 means little to Larkin

By TOM JONES, Times Staff Writer
Published May 9, 2004

Maybe life does begin at 40.

Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who turned 40 in April, is proving it by playing some of the best baseball of his career.

"To me it's a number, that's all it is," Larkin told the Dayton Daily News. "I'm playing good, period, so I don't think about my age."

But people are talking about some of his numbers. Often prone to injury in his career, Larkin played in 25 of the Reds' first 26 games, hitting .305.

"The game doesn't slow down for me because I'm 40, and nobody takes it easy on you because you're 40," Larkin said. "Am I as good as I once was? Not even close. I knew I was slowing down at the end of 1997 when I tore my Achilles' tendon. When I came back I knew things weren't the same. I didn't have the springiness in my legs I once had."

But he still has a good arm and is proving he can still swing a bat. Even at 40.

"I'm playing baseball ... and that makes a difference," Larkin said.

BACKE IN BUSINESS: Former Rays pitcher Brandon Backe is off to a good start in Houston. Traded in the offseason for Geoff Blum, Backe has pitched 14 innings with an ERA of 1.93, second-best on the team.

Catcher Brad Ausmus, who caught shortstop-turned-pitcher Trevor Hoffman with the Padres, has been impressed with Backe, an outfielder-turned pitcher.

"His fastball kind of jumps on hitters," Ausmus said. "He hides it very well, and when it gets past them it looks faster than what the velocity says on the board. Secondly, he's got a very good slider and he can throw it for strikes or throw it out of the zone and make people chase it."

ANOTHER FORMER RAY: Infielder Vinny Castilla has found his bat again in Colorado.

"In the past you could go to the breaking ball when you needed to get him, but not now," Rockies pitcher Shawn Estes said. "He's hammering the hanging breaking ball. He's even hitting the good breaking ball. His M.O. in the past was no fastball was good enough to get by him, but he's a mature hitter now."

How mature? The past two seasons Castilla led the majors in swinging at first pitches. Two years ago he swung at the first pitch 50 percent of the time. Last year he chased it 52 percent of the time. This year he's taking the first pitch 70 percent of the time.

"What he's doing is making pitchers work, and he's killing their mistakes," Estes said.

PROSPECT PROBLEMS: The Rays aren't the only team that has a touted prospect dealing with off-field issues. The Marlins' top pitching prospect, Jeff Allison, has left extended spring training and no date has been set for his return.

Before reporting to spring camp in late March, three weeks later than most minor-leaguers, Allison agreed to random drug testing for the next two years and accepted a restructured payout of his $1.85-million signing bonus. All this is according to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

The newspaper reported Allison, the 16th overall draft pick in June, has not failed a drug test but might have self-reported a problem with a recreational drug. That drug is not believed to be cocaine or marijuana, the newspaper reported, and Allison is not in a rehabilitation center.

LONG AND SHORT OF IT: The Rangers had the best shortstop last season but traded Alex Rodriguez in the offseason. So what team has the best shortstop in baseball this season? Why, quite possibly the Rangers.

Michael Young came into the weekend hitting .377 with 16 extra-base hits in 122 at-bats and had no errors in the past 24 games.

"If we're talking about this year, Michael is No.1," Rangers second baseman Alfonso Soriano said.

TROUBLE IN ARIZONA: The Rays briefly considered going after Arizona closer Matt Mantei in the offseason. Mantei, though, has lost his closer's job and has confirmed he is dealing with unspecified "difficult family issues."

"Some days it does affect your mind, and the last thing you worry about is baseball," he said. "But that's something that I can't use as an excuse. I still have to go out there and get people out."

E-6: Here's a shocker: Nine-time Gold Glove winner Omar Vizquel of the Indians came into the weekend with more errors than any shortstop in the majors. Vizquel made his sixth last week, which is more than he made in two other full seasons: He made three errors in 2000, five in 1998. Vizquel came into this season with the highest fielding percentage for any shortstop in history at .983. His fielding percentage this season is .946, the lowest of any shortstop in the majors.

ONE-TWO PUNCH: Last week Indians pitchers Jake Westbrook and C.C. Sabathia were ranked 1-2 in American League ERA. Westbrook was at 1.32, and Sabathia was at 1.61.

Only twice in 23 years have the top two pitchers in the American League in ERA been from the same team. In 2002 Boston's Pedro Martinez (2.26) and Derek Lowe (2.58) ranked 1-2. In 1996 Toronto's Juan Guzman (2.93) and Pat Hentgen (3.22) ranked 1-2.

It has happened 15 times in the 103-year history of the AL.

DECISION 2004: The Orioles are about to have a dilemma at second base. Jerry Hairston is due to return from a rehabilitation assignment next week and hopes to reclaim his starting job. But Brian Roberts has filled in nicely with a .333 batting average and 13 steals, second to the Rays' Carl Crawford coming into the weekend.

"That's why we have a manager and GMs. I'll leave that situation to them," Roberts said.

The Orioles say that one can play second and other can DH, but they eventually might have to deal one of them.

SHORT HOPS: The Rockies are going to a four-man rotation, but each pitcher will have an 85-pitch limit. ... When pitchers Greg Maddux of the Cubs and Jason Marquis of the Cards stole bases last Monday, it was the first time two starting pitchers stole bases in the same game since 1950 when Bob Rush (Cubs) and Warren Spahn (Braves) did it. ... Atlanta's J.D. Drew isn't gaining the reputation of being a gamer. He missed five games this season with a tender hamstring and then missed three games with a strained neck. He hurt his neck swimming in a friend's pool on an off day.

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

[Last modified May 9, 2004, 01:40:27]


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