NEW YORK - Unwilling to test Greg Maddux's strained calf tonight against the Mets, manager Bobby Cox decided Monday to push back the four-time Cy Young winner to Friday in Boston.
"I think it's real smart to pitch him in a game where he doesn't have to run the bases," Cox said.
Maddux, who aggravated a strained left calf in his last start last Thursday against the Tigers, agreed with the decision.
"It makes sense," he said. "We've got a long way to go. I'll take three days now and we'll go from there."
Cox made the decision before the start of Monday's game after consulting with head trainer Dave Pursley and Maddux.
Albie Lopez, who has made three starts this year and is 1-3 with a 3.49 ERA, will replace Maddux.
Cox was encouraged watching Maddux run in the outfield before batting practice Monday, but acknowledged that the more rest the right-hander receives, the better the chances his calf will heal enough for him to take his next turn.
"For those fibers (in his calf) to regenerate, it takes four weeks," Cox said. "He's not going to sit out four weeks."
Worried the opposition might try and bunt on him, Maddux simulated fielding balls and throwing during batting practice, taking balls in right field, whirling, and throwing at the wall. It was clear he was still hampered by the injury.
"He can't go fast," Cox said.
LEADOFF RACE: Batting .422 in his last 11 games, Rafael Furcal is pressing Florida's Luis Castillo as the league's best leadoff hitter. The switch-hitting shortstop, who hit .371 (13 for 35) with two home runs and five RBI during the homestand and leads the major leagues with 17 bunt hits, is among league leaders in five offensive categories.
"It's the way he played last year," Cox said. "Raffy is a great player and he's the best shortstop in baseball right now."
Cox thinks Furcal is capable of reaching a double-digit home run total, though he'd prefer him bat .300 and steal 40 bases.
"I said when he first came up it wouldn't shock me if he hit 15 home runs," Cox said. "He's a strong little guy. He's wiry and put together."
Furcal, who described his last two home runs as "accidents," has made a nice recovery from a poor May, lifting his batting average from .235 on May 19 to .283. The key, he said, is getting out of the habit of trying to hit the ball too hard.
"Sometimes I try to swing so hard I don't see the ball good," he said. "And when I don't stay back, I'm not ready for breaking pitches and I hit a lot of fly balls."
Hitting the ball in the air fails to take advantage of Furcal's terrific speed. With the exception of his home runs ("I'm surprised when the ball goes out"), he wants to pound the ball into the grass and force infielders to make plays on him.
"I feel better when I'm hitting a lot of ground balls," he said. "I've got a better chance of getting a hit."
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Matt Franco was surrounded by New York media Monday afternoon, all wondering what's the secret behind his offensive explosion and what he meant when he said he wanted to "beat the Mets' brains in" following Sunday's game.
The first baseman, who played for six years in the Mets' organization, is batting .375 with three home runs and seven RBI in a backup role. His contributions may earn him a job ahead of Wes Helms, whose playing time has evaporated with the two Francos, Matt and Julio, swinging hot bats.
But the younger Franco has no explanation for his sudden emergence as a productive hitter following two seasons in which he batted .239 with the Mets in 2000, and .245 last year with Class AAA Norfolk.
"I got screwed up," he said. "I got off to a terrible start last year and I never really recovered from it. I got lost somehow. But now I'm getting an opportunity to play a little bit now, and I've always been kind of a late bloomer."
IMPATIENT: Gary Sheffield thinks his power stroke is returning, though more slowly than he'd like. The right fielder, who has hit just one home run since June 12 and has knocked in one run since June 14, has hit in 10 of his last 14 games at a .327 clip, but batted just .214 (6 for 28) during the homestand.
"One day I'll be feeling close and the next day it will be something else I tweak," Sheffield said. "I can't catch a break."
Said Cox: "He hasn't gone on one of his tears yet, but he's close. He's the kind of hitter that can carry you, not just for a week, but for a month."
Sheffield's home run total is second to Andruw Jones' 19, but his RBI trail Jones, Chipper Jones, and Vinny Castilla, and are just seven more than Javy Lopez's total, numbers he admits are disappointing.
"When you come to a new team you want people to like what they have," Sheffield said. "That's the part that bothers me."
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