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Now that blackouts and viruses are behind me, the Advance Scout returns. The Oakland A's hit town for a rare wraparound four-game series that features a bonus Monday night affair after Sunday's matinee. Obviously, the visitors have a lot to play for, as they lead Boston by a scant game for the wild card and trail Seattle by only three in the West -- thanks to the solid efforts of Messrs. Towers and Hendrickson, of course.

The Athletics aren't firing on all cylinders right now, as they usually are in August and September. Several hitters are slumping, and others are only recently beginning to rouse themselves from their season-long underachievement. Plus, the strength of the club -- the rotation -- is on the limp, with Tim Hudson hopeful of pitching Sunday and Mark Mulder likely out for his next two starts.

But the White Elephants' bullpen has been simply fantastic of late, as they've preserved leads, picked up injured or faltering starters, and held the fort so as to facilitate several recent late-inning rallies. The Jays will have to jump on Halama and Lilly early, and hope that Hudson's not quite well while the Cy Young incumbent is merely Decent Barry tonight, as opposed to Stellar Barry.

Of course, all of us here at Batter's Box are looking forward to the input of resident A's expert John Gizzi, who politely declined the opportunity to be this weekend's Scout because of a pressing social obligation -- I don't remember if it was Amnesty International or the Make-A-Wish Foundation; Gitz will have to fill us in with specifics.

Meanwhile, although the Jays and A's currently share a strong relationship and a common theory of management, it wasn't too long ago that the clubs were postseason rivals, with the Jays breaking the cycle of Oakland's playoff dominance once and for all in '92. With that in mind, I thought I'd remind Mr. Gizzi of a sign I saw at Game 2 of the ALCS at SkyDome, which applies with equal force today: "Oakland Fans Are Athletic Supporters."

On to the Advance Scout!

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Well into August, the Jays finally see their expansion cousins for the first time. What to expect: Quality starts, great defence and a good bullpen that becomes great in the back end. In Rafael Soriano and Shigetoshi Hasegawa, the M's have the equivalents of a young Duane Ward and an overhanded Dan Quisenberry -- both in terms of statistics and usage versatility.

What not to expect: Offensive explosions, especially from the bottom of the order. There are some glaring holes in the Mariner lineup, and Jeff Nelson's views on the inability (or unwillingness) of management to fill them have become well-documented.

It's a tough draw for the slumpers in the Jays' lineup, but I like Garcia vs. Halladay tomorrow night. Mark Hendrickson pitches for the first time in front of friends and family tonight, and we at the Box wish him well.

I should also mention that here at Batter's Box, we have our very own jewel of the Pacific Northwest...and he's named John Gizzi. Hopefully he can add to this series' Scout with some local insight.

On to the Advance Scout!
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The Rangers come into town swinging some heavy lumber, aided considerably by a top four in their batting order as dangerous as any in the American League. It's audition time for the Rangers, both in the bullpen and in the outfield, as John Hart continues to replenish Texas' farm system. One position that won't see an audition this season, though, is designated hitter; Rafael Palmeiro vetoed another trade last night and will likely not be swayed before the end of the month.

Texas comes in with nine rookies on their roster, including an All-Star third baseman, a fleet-footed centrefielder who was a stone-handed minor-league middle infielder as recently as six weeks ago, and a starting pitcher who quotes Major League. It'll be an interesting test for Corey Thurman tonight, who's himself auditioning for a starting job for next season.

Lots of good stuff this week. Enjoy the series!

On to the Advance Scout!
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Who would have guessed at the start of the season that the Jays would be more looking forward to an August series in Anaheim than to the subsequent three-gamer in St. Petersburg?

Indeed, the Rays are a much hotter club than the Angels at the moment, and are fresh off their incredibly frustrating three-game sweep at the Dome last week. They proved to be a pesky opponent for a team playing meaningful baseball this weekend, too, as they took one of three from the Royals and nearly took a second.

To make matters worse, Joe Kennedy pitches on Wednesday. Heading into his start, however, Kennedy's back is smarting from a SkyDome slip-and-fall and his pride is smarting from repeated shellackings on the mound. Plus, he's got some kid named Halladay as his opposing number. Folks, if your Toronto Blue Jays are ever going to beat Cross-Body Joe, Wednesday's the day!

In other action this week, Lidle and Hendrickson get second chances to beat the not-quite-dynamic duo of Zambrano and Sosa after they each failed to do so last week.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Well, my pre-season pick to repeat isn't looking so hot. Every Angel not named Garret is suffering from a severe slugging slump, and the team's been reeling since the All-Star Break (when contention was still very much a possibility). The team's vaunted chemistry has broken down lately as well, although most Halos were happy not to see either a fire sale or a panic session of trading good prospects for last-ditch help.

With Kevin Appier gone, the Angels are finally rid of their financial sinkhole created by the Mo Vaughn signing that seemed like a much better idea at the time. New owner Arte Moreno has apparently given the Angels' head office the go-ahead to spend this offseason, boosted by the team's championship-fueled attendance that has blown prior team records for fan support out of the water.

(Note to Wayne Huizenga: You see? The '98 Marlins didn't even have to be good. They just had to have the possibility of being good and you would have made money.)

On to the Advance Scout!
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Damian Rolls! Mark Malaska! Matt Diaz! D-Rays fever...Catch It!

Seriously, the Rays have some hope for the future. Ownership has promised LaMar and Piniella a payroll increase for next season, although they have refused to commit to a figure. Still, that ought to allow Tampa Bay to substantially improve their team, since the salaries of Ben Grieve, Rey Ordonez and Greg Vaughn -- finally -- come off the books. Piniella's happy with his young nucleus, which he recently described as Rocco Baldelli, Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford, Antonio Perez and Toby Hall. Going forward, there is at least the makings of respectability here.

Back to the present, the Jays face a team this week that's been hitting well, but pitching poorly. It won't be easy, but the Jays have an opportunity to add three more W's this week. (And they duck their inexplicable nemesis, Joe Kennedy.)

On to the Advance Scout!
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The Orioles can't really be considered a laughingstock this weekend, as they've been getting very good starting pitching (Rodrigo Lopez excepted) and have been swinging hot bats. Like Chicago, the O's come to Toronto playing their best ball of the season; unlike Chicago, the O's share a division with excellent clubs that will relegate them to selling mode this week.

Baltimore is a club with some important decisions to make. They have a nucleus of young players that might make them an interesting team in the next few years, and they're not in any pressing need to cut payroll. But the O's minor-league system is talent-thin, and this remains a flawed club at the big-league level.

Does Baltimore sell extensively and re-stock their AA cupboard? Do they hold pat with their non-Jurassic players and plan on adding a few parts in the offseason with an eye on competing? Or do they make an old-fashioned baseball trade, shipping out a surplus infielder and acquiring a needed left fielder, shortstop or catcher? Certainly, the O's should dump the Surhoffs, Grooms and Seguis of the world on desperate contenders. But how high is, say, Melvin Mora's trade value right now? Options abound.

And while Sir Sidney Ponson is unlikely to command the eight figures he's seeking as a 26-year-old free agent, he's absolutely certain to decline the Orioles' offer of $5M a season. Do the Orioles quicken the heretofore glacial pace of contract negotiations, if for no other reason than to figure out whether to trade him now?

This series should be interesting, both on the field and off.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Look out -- here comes the Hose.

Chicago has won five straight and seven of eight, as they have surged past Minnesota as Kansas City's primary challenger (at the moment, anyway). Roberto Alomar has been solid in black pinstripes, but it's been the power surge from the middle of the order -- Thomas, Ordonez, Lee and even Paul Konerko -- that's gotten the White Sox back on track. Chicago has been counteracting its poor defensive play with a reliable bullpen that has pitched particularly well recently.

The Jays duck Esteban Loaiza, who has shown no signs of a post-All-Star hangover. But Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland have both been tough on the Jays this season, and they're both coming off of respectable outings. Nobody really knows who the Jays will trot out on Thursday, given the mercurial nature of trade winds. What we do know is that Doc goes for 15, one day later than anticipated, tonight. Lots of reasons to follow this mini-series, including Frank Thomas going for #400; he's one away.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Which Jays club will show up for the Yankee series this weekend? The reeling Jays that got bombed by the Bombers in April here, or the doubles-happy lineup that swept New York away in May?

It's just a two-game whistle-stop for the Jays this time before the Jays return home. It's somewhat melancholy to consider, but even a two-game sweep will render our not-quite-ready-for-prime-time club just 5-7 in the pivotal 12-game stretch against Boston and New York.

The Yankees are playing excellent ball, particularly offensively. Mark Hendrickson shakes off the rust and tries to take advantage of Death Valley in left-centre tonight; I'll be there. Doc goes for his Fantastic Fifteenth against Andy Pettitte tomorrow night.

On to the Advance Scout!
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OK, I don't like the Red Sox. Not even a little bit. But I'm still hoping against hope that the Jays' homestand proves to be a tremendous success for the Beantowners, as that would require Toronto racking up some W's against the Yankees this weekend in front of what should be some large (if Lackawanna-infused) crowds. The Yankees have been winning despite several key injuries. Of course, their ability to pick up costly veterans whenever somebody goes down with a day-to-day injury helps.

Not many soft touches on this lineup, and although the bullpen has been suspect, the Jays have been making suspect 'pens look fantastic lately. It'll be interesting to see if Toronto fans have Raul Mondesi to kick around this weekend, since the moody veteran has been benched. The even-more-moody Boomer Wells isn't even making the trip.

It's never easy against the Bombers, except possibly when Jeff Weaver starts. Is this last call for the playoff bandwagon?

On to the Advance Scout!
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"SPLITTING MAD," blared the Boston Globe this morning. As is their wont, Red Sox Nation and their carnivorous media are dwelling on the just-passed Yankee series and ignoring the important (if not "equally important") three-gamer at the Dome that gets underway tonight.

Don't bet on the players making the same mistake. Although there are some cold spots in the otherwise amazing Boston lineup, one of them is Nom-ah, and we all know that won't last. Otherwise, the Red Sox are essentially the same club that we've seen before: inconsistent starting pitching and defence, a rotten bullpen, and bats that boom so loudly as to overcome these problems on a frighteningly regular basis.

The Doctor is in tonight, but the Jays are apparently sticking with the ill-advised decision not to skip Doug Davis tomorrow. Let's go for two wins in what should be great entertainment.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Fresh off vacation, the Advance Scout is back -- featuring the *sigh* Orioles. The Jays have gotten rather familiar with the O's, with a four-game set last week in Toronto preceded by a rain-shortened two-gamer at Oriole Park the week before. Once again, the singles-hitting Marylanders have the potential to jolt the Jays' playoff bandwagon unless the Jays pitchers stay in the strike zone.

None of the Orioles' starters will necessarily be an easy mark, but all are beatable. With the Red Sox and Yankees set to tangle this weekend, the Jays can gain plenty of ground with a big series.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Its the Birds again. Better get used to it, 7 of the next 13 games are against Baltimore. A 4 set this week in Skydome and then three in Baltimore July 4th weekend.The Jays have won 30 of the last 41 between these two.

The good news is Baltimore aren't quite as hopeless as they have been in recent years. Mora, Gibbons, Matos and Hairston are showing signs of becoming the core of a decent offense. That offense has scored a creditable 366 runs (through Saturday) thats more than the Giants, Mets, White Sox, Cubs,
Indians, Expos and Phillies and only one less than the Rangers.

The Orioles are entering a stretch of the schedule not even Montreal would envy, they are in a stretch of 50 games where only two are against teams under .500.

On to the advanced scout...
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We all know about the "big picture" difficulties baseball's most mistreated franchise continues to face. But this weekend features a variety of intriguing "small picture" issues that will more directly impact the Expos' Pearson Cup series against the Jays. Simply put, the Expos aren't just doomed; they're also tired and injured heading into this weekend.

Will the tremendously-relieved-to-be-home club resume its excellent play at the Big O, charged with adrenaline? Or will they have nothing left in the tank after a 22-game road trip that included three games in their last two days?

Will the Expos get any offensive production whatsoever beyond Brad Wilkerson and their outstanding middle infield? Or will pitching, including their surprising bullpen, carry them through the weekend?

Javier Vazquez, the man on the mound in tonight's opener, presents the toughest match-up for the Jays this weekend -- though he's been susceptible to the longball. The pitches of Sun Woo Kim and Livan Hernandez will probably be more to the liking of the Jays' eager bats.

On a more personal note, I'm checking out for vacation. Look for Coach and/or Gitz to pinch-Scout for me for two of the next three series.

On to the Advance Scout!
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We're finally here, Gentle Readers: The first three of nineteen -- count 'em, 19 -- games with our divisional opponent, the Orioles. Their hitting might cause a problem or two for the shakier members of the Jays' staff, but Baltimore's rotation might make the Toronto brain trust a little more forgiving in their critiques of the unbalanced schedule.

Offensively, the O's have surprised. The Flanagan/Beattie Franken-GM have preached patience at the plate, and most Orioles not named Deivi have responded. According to Peter Gammons, the Orioles gave up on Sarge's son because Gary Jr. wouldn't buy into the new philosophy.

And then there's Melvin Mora. There have been naysayers posting here at the Box, but I stand by the following: Mora has played like an All-Star, he will be an All-Star, and he should be an All-Star. Yeah, I was probably also one of the guys who guffawed when some "sucker" wound up with him in the 19th round of the rotisserie draft. But all Mora's done is work counts, rip line drives all over the field (and even out of the park on occasion), and supply reliable defence no matter where he's played.

But the Orioles have surrendered some serious hit totals, mostly from the starting staff; Oriole hurlers have been tagged to the tune of .280 by opposing hitters -- and they have yet to face the Jays!

Memorial Stadium and its "Oriole Magic" did in Toronto clubs time and again in the '80s, but Camden Yards has been one of the Jays' favourite opposition venues since it opened. Ponson will be a challenge in the shadows of Thursday's 3:00 matinee, but starts by Halladay and Escobar similar to what they've shown recently should get the Jays' road trip off to a flying start.

On to the Advance Scout!

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