THE RACE IS ON
This September offers the promise of baseball's four divisional races' going down to the wire. That hasn't happened since 1985, when they were all decided in the final week.
Some of the drama may not be there this time around because of awkward scheduling, but on the regular season's final weekend these matchups are enticing: Kansas City is in Oakland, the Cubs are in St. Louis, and Baltimore plays in Toronto. Here is how the divisional races stack up as September gets under way:
Can the Padres catch up while the division-leading Giants and the second-place Astros limp home? San Diego, 10 games back on Aug. 24, went 6-1 the rest of the month and was 6½ back as September began. The Padres still have two series left with the Giants (Sept. 15-17 and Sept. 29-Oct. 1). A key factor could be the performance of Padres first baseman Jack Clark. After a dismal start, Clark is hot, with 11 homers and 32 RBIs in the last 45 games. The Padres also enter the stretch with more healthy pitchers than their rivals. Fireballing rookie Andy Benes, who was called up in early August, has won his last two starts. He joins a rotation of Bruce Hurst, Ed Whitson and Dennis Rasmussen. Calvin Schiraldi, acquired on Aug. 30 from the Cubs, could help out as a fifth starter or as a backup to Mark Davis and Greg Harris in the bullpen. "I just wish we'd started earlier," says manager Jack McKeon.
The Giants are crawling toward the finish because the pitching staff is falling apart: Dave Dravecky's valiant comeback from cancer was cut short by a broken arm in his second outing; Rick Reushel's hamstring injury caused him to struggle all August; Don Robinson has been up and down; and Kelly Downs and Mike LaCoss will never be confused with Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. No wonder the Giants were only six games over .500 from June 16 to Sept. 1. Offensively, Kevin Mitchell has cooled off from his torrid early-season pace, and that has sometimes allowed opponents to pitch around Will Clark. Still, Roger Craig remains a resourceful manager. "Roger can make something positive out of anything," says Braves general manager Bobby Cox.
The Houston Astros' hopes dimmed when they suffered a demoralizing 10-9 defeat by the Cubs on Aug. 29, after leading 9-0 in the sixth inning. Afterward, first baseman Glenn Davis shattered a clubhouse mirror in frustration, so luck may not be with Houston in September.
The Angels and the Royals fear that the division-leading A's, after grinding through five months, will take off in September and win going away. The return to form of Jose Canseco could ice things for Oakland. He hit three home runs in two games in Yankee Stadium last week and then hit a homer in each of the next two games, in Milwaukee. "We're O.K. without Jose," said A's manager Tony La Russa. "But we are a different team with him. He's a monstrous force." The missing link for the A's is Mark McGwire, who hit .184 from Aug. 1 through Saturday.
Kansas City appears to have the best shot at overtaking the A's. The Royals' schedule is soft until the last week of the season, which they will spend in Anaheim and Oakland. The Royals have the pitching, with starters Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and Tom Gordon and reliever Jeff Montgomery. But their top power hitters, Bo Jackson and Danny Tartabull, are nursing injuries. (With those two in the same starting lineup with George Brett, the Royals have been 38-15.) The Royals' biggest need is a fourth starter. Charlie Leibrandt has been unable to pitch inside effectively all season and is 5-10 with a 4.94 ERA.
The Angels have held on gamely, because their starting pitching has led the league in ERA for most of the year. But now the team is worried about the physical condition of pitchers Chuck Finley (injured foot) and Kirk McCaskill (tired arm and back spasms). "People keep waiting for us to collapse, but it won't happen," says outfielder Claudell Washington. "Our pitching has to do it for us, and it can," says manager Doug Rader.
This division has been a wonderful season-long story, perhaps best highlighted by that game in which the Cubs rallied from a 9-0 deficit to beat the Astros 10-9. Cub broadcaster Harry Caray compared the win to V-J Day. The Expos have also had their moments in the sun—and under Olympic Stadium's retractable roof. And the Cardinals have crept into the hunt, despite the loss of three starting pitchers.
But when it comes to the crunch, the Cubs, Expos and Cards are going to have to beat the Mets' starting pitching. For that, credit Mets vice-president Joe McIlvaine, who acquired Frank Viola from the Twins on July 31. In the last five Septembers, the three winningest pitchers in the game have been Viola (19-10), Orel Hershiser (19-9) and Dwight Gooden (18-9). Viola's 1-0 defeat of Hershiser in Los Angeles on Aug. 28 emphasized how important it was to the Mets to have a great money pitcher to replace the injured Gooden, who has been out since July 1 with a muscle tear in his right shoulder. Meanwhile, Gooden was reactivated last Saturday and should be ready to start soon.
Consider also the September histories of the rest of the Mets' starters: Ron Darling is 11-2 and Sid Fernandez 11-3 for the last four Septembers, and David Cone was 6-0 last year. Add to this pitching Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson and Kevin McReynolds, the division's most productive heart of the order, and the Mets become the team to beat in the stretch.
The scrambling, gambling Cubs keep pulling off the impossible and refuse to fold. But can their pitching hold up? Reliever Mitch Williams hasn't thrown as well in the last two weeks as he did earlier. Manager Don Zimmer has only four available starters, including rookie Steve Wilson, and there is concern that pitching on three days' rest is taking its toll on Rick Sutcliffe and Mike Bielecki.
Montreal manager Buck Rodgers is worried about the Expo offense: It has been up and down for six weeks. The leadoff spot has been such a wasteland that last week Rodgers moved Tim Raines there from cleanup.
The Cardinals have four major strengths: Their lineup is healthy and hot; they have one of the division's best bull-pens; Joe Magrane (18-7) is pitching like a Cy Young winner; and their manager is Whitey Herzog. What hurts is that while every other contender has made at least one big move to acquire pitching—the Mets got Viola, the Expos got Mark Langston and Zane Smith, the Cubs got Paul Assenmacher, enabling them to start Wilson—Cards general manager Dal Maxvill has done nothing, forcing the team to face the stretch with two retreads, Rick Horton and Ted Power.
The Orioles have been America's sentimental favorite this year, just as the Red Sox were in 1967 and the Mets were in '69. But when August turned to September, the Blue Jays passed Baltimore (page 22), and the Red Sox were five games off the lead. For the O's, the impossible dream had become improbable. The Orioles have two big headaches in the stretch: Catcher Mickey Tettleton was activated last Saturday, but after missing a month with a knee injury, it could take a while to get his bat in shape; and they are trying to win with a four-man starting rotation that includes three rookies—Pete Harnisch, Bob Milacki and Dave Johnson—who have a combined lifetime record of 16-23.
This could well be Toronto's year. The Blue Jays have the best starting pitching and the deepest bullpen. (Toronto's ERA was 3.62 going into September, as opposed to Baltimore's 4.00 and Boston's 4.06.)
The Red Sox still have the best team in the field. Wade Boggs will make his annual run at .350 (he's .394 in September for the last three years). "The best sign is that Roger Clemens is throwing better than he has all year," says catcher Rick Cerone. Clemens, the winningest September pitcher (12-3) the last three seasons, blew away Detroit and California in his last two starts.
BETWEEN THE LINES
SEPTEMBERS TO REMEMBER
How much can one player do down the stretch? Consider some of the great Septembers of the '80s:
1) The Dodgers' Orel Hershiser had a 5-0 record and allowed no earned runs in 55 innings in 1988.
2) The A's Jose Canseco had a .393 average, with eight homers, 24 RBIs and a .753 slugging percentage, also in '88.
3) The Tigers' Alan Trammell hit for a .416 average with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 1987. Detroit took first place from the Blue Jays on the final day of the season.
4) The Phillies' Mike Schmidt hit nine homers and had 22 RBIs in 1980. Philadelphia clinched the title on Oct. 4, the next-to-last day of the season.
Cincinnati Reds utility infielder Luis Quinones was on a five-game, .480-batting tear when he played in St. Louis on Aug. 27. The Cardinals apparently were not impressed. During each of his first two at bats, the scoreboard flashed Manny Trillo's picture with Quinones's stats.
BUT WAS IT WORTH IT?
Pete Rose collected an estimated $50,000 for his appearances on the Consumer Value Network. He went on for two hours the night he was banned from baseball for life and for two hours the night after, selling autographed plaques, bats, balls and jerseys. The show grossed approximately $500,000 during his appearances.
THE MAN WHO LAUNCHED 1,000 SHIRTS
In May several Texas Rangers who once played for the Chicago Cubs wore T-shirts displaying the message I WAS FREYED AND ZIMMERED. Now many Cubs have donned T-shirts that read THE BOYS OF ZIMMER.
The Pittsburgh farm system is so thin that the Pirates' September recalls—Dann Bilardello, Bob Patterson and Albert Hall—are all 30 or older.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Don Mattingly, on this excruciating Yankee season: "Maybe it's time we grew our hair long, started wearing earrings, wear our pants down low, wear jeans on the planes and turn ourselves into the Oakland Raiders of baseball."
•Texas pitching coach Tom House has an instructional video titled "Pitching Absolutes," but the Rangers have led the league in walks the last three seasons and lead again this year.
•The Giants were 28 for 162 (.173) with runners in scoring position in August.
•In the 17 years George Steinbrenner has owned the Yankees, the team has had 11 different heads of baseball operations: Gabe Paul, Al Rosen, Cedric Tallis, Gene Michael, Bill Bergesch, Murray Cook, Clyde King, Woody Woodward, Lou Piniella, Bob Quinn and Syd Thrift. At this writing the replacement for Thrift, who resigned on Aug. 29, had not been named.
•White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice, a lifetime .168 hitter, is batting .275 under coach Walt Hriniak's tutelage.
•Who are the hardest throwers in baseball? AL scouts say Saberhagen is the most consistently fast, although Kevin Brown of Texas can occasionally top him with his 98-mph fastball. The two fastest in the NL are Tim Belcher of the Dodgers and John Smoltz of the Braves.
•The Indians' season has been so disappointing that club president Hank Peters is ready to replace manager Doc Edwards. His top candidate for the job is Cleveland scout John Hart, who was manager of Triple A Rochester for the Orioles when Peters was general manager at Baltimore.
•On Aug. 30, the Cardinals' Jose DeLeon pitched what might have been the best game of the 1989 season. He faced the minimum 33 batters in 11 innings against the Reds. And he didn't win. Cincinnati scored two runs off reliever Todd Worrell in the 13th and won 2-0.