After not pitching in nine days and not starting in 16, no one really knew what to expect from Yankees starter Mike Mussina on Wednesday night. The right-hander thrilled his teammates by throwing 5 2/3 scoreless innings in a 4-1 New York win over Toronto. Mussina allowed five singles and walked three batters as he showed he may be ready to rejoin the starting rotation. A return to form could turn around what has been a perplexing season for the star right-hander and give the Yankees a boost as the club begins to focus on the postseason.

"It was nice to get back out there and win a ballgame, and feel like I'm contributing to the cause here, because it didn't feel that way for a long time," Mussina told Newsday.

Yankees manager Joe Torre was happy to see Mussina throw so well.

"He was terrific," Torre said. "I thought he stayed ahead [in the count] most of the night. I'm just really pleased."

It is not certain when Mussina will start again. The club wants to see how well Rogers Clemens and Ian Kennedy do in their next starts. But with the Yankees pushing for a playoff spot, Torre said Mussina "has an edge (to start again), because of the experience, there's no question."

Mussina knows he is not in control of when he starts again, but he was pleased that he showed he can still contribute to the team.

"I think I've just reminded them that I'm still here and I think I can still pitch," he said.

No. 499 a family affair for Thome: With each passing day, Chicago White Sox veteran Jim Thome inches closer and closer to his 500th career home run. On Tuesday night against the Indians' Jake Westbrook, Thome hit his 499th in front of lots of family and friends.

"My little girl [Lila] was there, jumping around," Thome told the Chicago Tribune. "I was looking at my dad and sister. That's the great thing about baseball. It kind of brings your family together. The tradition ... you come together, not only as teammates, but family as well."

With the milestone on the seemingly immediate horizon, Thome admits he's enjoyed the journey.

"It has been pretty awesome," said Thome, who will resume his pursuit Friday night against the Los Angeles Angels and former Cleveland teammate Bartolo Colon. "I guess it's kind of reality now. It's getting close."

With Jim Thome Bobblehead day planned for Sunday at U.S. Cellular Field, he's anxious to break the record at home -- if possible.

"It will be cool," he said. "Hopefully it will happen here. The White Sox fans deserve it."

Vizquel hopes to remain a Giant: The Giants have talked about undergoing a youth movement next year. Shortstop Omar Vizquel, one of the 40-somethings on the team, hopes they have room for him to return. The pitchers feel the same way about the 11-time Gold Glove Award winner. Kevin Correia was the latest hurler to express those feelings after Vizquel started a game-ending double play Tuesday night. Vizquel was grateful for the pitcher's comments. v "I hope 24 other guys feel the same way, and the front office," Vizquel told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Vizquel still loves to play the game and he wants to be a member of the Giants when he breaks Luis Aparicio's record of 2,583 games at shortstop. He currently has 2,556 games played at the position and believes he is just as good in the field at 41-years old than when he was younger.

"I don't feel any different now than I felt five years ago," Vizquel said.

No first-pitch swing no problem for Pujols: St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, who is having another amazing -- even if not Pujols-like season -- is among the league leaders this season in a different category -- first pitches taken. By swinging at just over 12 percent of first pitches, he is second in the National League to Milwaukee shortstop J.J. Hardy, who swings at 9.4 percent of first pitches.

"Am I taking a little bit more this year? Probably. Yeah," Pujols told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "It's not on purpose."

Always a good two-strike hitter, Pujols has batted .270 in his career with two strikes. This year, he's hitting almost .300 with 13 of his 30 home runs coming with a two-strike count.

"It could be 100 percent," Pujols said of his first-pitch takes. "I don't have to worry about taking the first pitch because I'm not a strikeout guy. I can give 21/2 strikes to the pitcher and I'm still going to take the same swing that I always take."

Ramirez has batting practice success: While Boston manager Terry Francona is not saying when he expects Manny Ramirez to be back in the lineup, expect the slugging right-hander to hit against the Yankees this weekend.

Ramirez took batting practice Wednesday and showed no effects from the strained oblique muscle that has had him sidelined since Aug. 28. In three rounds of batting practice that consisted of nine swings each, Ramirez was taking full counts in the third round and sent two balls into the seats.

Francona still plans to go slow with Ramirez ""until he's pain-free at the point of tenderness."

Teammate David Ortiz said Ramirez may be swinging the bat well, but he is still sore.

"He's still hurting a little bit," Ortiz told the Boston Globe. "It seems like after he warms up, he starts feeling better."

Rangers rookie Volquez doesn't get rattled: Texas Rangers pitcher Edinson Volquez didn't get the win Wednesday night as Detroit claimed a 5-1 victory, but Volquez showed the Rangers that he may be a key member of the rotation next season.

In losing for the first time in three starts since being recalled from the Minors, Volquez struck out a career-high six hitters in six innings. He also walked four batters and allowed five runs on seven hits.

"His final line is not going to be indicative of how well he threw, and I think their guys over there would tell you the same thing," Rangers shortstop Michael Young told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Volquez was done in by two mistakes. The first was a fastball Gary Sheffield hit for a two-run homer and the second as a changeup that Magglio Ordonez deposited into the stands for a three-run homer in the sixth inning following two walks.

"I just missed two pitches tonight, and when you miss a pitch in the big leagues, you pay for it," Volquez said.

What impressed the Rangers was the fact that Volquez didn't let the home runs rattle him. After the Sheffield homer, Volquez threw four shutout innings. After the home run to Ordonez, he struck out the next two hitters.

"That's why we left him out there: 'Let's see what's going to happen here,'" Rangers pitching coach Mark Connor said of Volquez after Ordonez's homer.

McDonald a mainstay at shortstop in Toronto: Toronto Blue Jays shortstop John McDonald finally has a little security in his life. McDonald has signed a two-year contract with the Jays for a substantial amount more than what he has been making this season.

"It feels nice," he told the Toronto Star. "It kind of gives you a little more peace of mind for the future.

"I feel fortunate to have played as long as I have and to have things work out here, where we have a team with a lot of offensive players, a very good pitching staff and a fit for a defensive-minded shortstop."

General manager J.P. Ricciardi said he is more than happy to have McDonald in the fold through the 2009 season.

"He's the kind of guy you root for," said Ricciardi. "We're comfortable with him and he's earned the right to come back and be our shortstop."

Happy birthdaaaay, Dice-K: Boston pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka received surprise Wednesday when members of the Japanese media greeted the right-handed pitcher outside the clubhouse with a birthday cake and sang an English version of "Happy Birthday."

Matsuzaka, who actually turned 27 Thursday, posed with the cake and thanked everyone, even joking about how next year should be a better celebration.

"Next year will be a better birthday than this year," he told the Boston Herald in reference to his performance in recent starts.

As Matsuzaka has struggled a bit on the mound lately, fellow Japanese player Akinori Iwamura of Tampa Bay has a theory as to why the right-hander has not been at the top of his game.

"In Japan he isn't settled in the early innings, but as the pitch count goes up -- 100 pitches, 120 pitches, eighth inning, ninth inning -- he executes better," Iwamura said. "He would throw over 95 mph in the ninth inning.

"The pitch count limit isn't really working for him because he's capable of pitching more numbers, and as he pitches more he usually settles down and does better."

Theriot: Tired? Who's tired? Chicago Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot wants to make one thing very clear to anyone that will listen -- he doesn't require any days off as the Cubs make a push to win the NL Central.

"Who said I was tired?" he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I feel good. I don't feel tired."

Theriot admits that as the season progresses, it can take a toll. But with the Cubs making a run, he's not planning on asking for any time off.

"Mentally, the game gets a little taxing as the year goes one. But it's to the point now where it's crunch time and you want to be in there making a difference," he said. "So you do everything you can to stay in there to help the team win."

Hamels scheduled for Tuesday start: Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, after throwing a bullpen session earlier this week, is currently on schedule to start Tuesday against the Cardinals in St. Louis. His sore left elbow, he says, is seemingly getting better.

"It was feeling good when I was letting it go, and I wasn't feeling any pinch or anything catching," Hamels told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It was good to really let it go and feel good. Now I know I can go out there and contribute."

Of the 30 pitches Hamels threw, 25 of them were fastballs.

"The first couple I tried to let go just so I could see if [the discomfort] was still there so I'd know how to attack it or go around it," said Hamels. "I let it go and didn't feel anything, so I went back to my normal routine and tried to hit my spots."

Pitching coach Rich Dubee says that Hamels will likely throw 55 to 60 pitches on Tuesday if there are no setbacks between now and then.

No sophomore slump for Verlander: For the Detroit Tigers, it's been a long time since they've had a bona-fide, young ace on their pitching staff. With plenty of young talent to go around these days, an argument could be made that a couple of different pitchers can now stake a claim to that role. Included on that list -- right at the top, actually -- is Justin Verlander.

A year removed from winning the Rookie of the Year Award, Verlander has enjoyed a 2007 season during which he has thrown a no-hitter and made the All-Star team. He's also become a go-to guy in pressure spots.

"I don't shy away from the situation where I'm the guy to go out there and be the stopper," Verlander, who has a 0.95 ERA in his last four starts, told the Detroit News. "But at the same time, I don't want to put any added pressure on myself.

"I just go out there and approach every start like it's April."

Now 17-5 with a 3.47 ERA, Verlander has definitely earned the respect of his veteran teammates.

"He's everything you look for in a No. 1," said closer Todd Jones. "And there are not too many of those guys who can pan out to what they're supposed to be, but Justin is certainly one of them."

Giambi relishes role in the field: Entering the 2007 season, the New York Yankees expected Andy Phillips to start the majority of games at first base and for Jason Giambi to be the primary designated hitter. However, those plans changed when Phillips broke his wrist last month.

Giambi is now playing first base regularly and is enjoying himself out in the field.

"I think it's going great," Giambi told Newsday. "I know I'm not hitting, but that has nothing to do with [playing first base]."

Giambi himself missed more than two months of the season due to a partially torn plantar fascia. But thanks to rehab and regular running, Giambi believes he may be in better shape than he has been the last few years.

"My legs feel the best I've ever felt my legs, my feet," Giambi said.

-- Red Line Editorial