With the acquisition of Harold Baines and Willie McGee by the already dominant A's (page 28), and the recent surge by the Red Sox, who at week's end had opened up a 6½-game lead over the second-place Blue Jays, the most interesting American League race might turn out to be for the batting crown, not for a division title. McGee won't be in the American League batting hunt, but his .335 average through Aug. 29, the day of his final game with St. Louis, may be good enough to win the National League title if the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra (.341 through Sunday) and the Mets' Dave Magadan (.330) continue to fade. The American League, though, has six realistic candidates for the crown, some of them new to the pressures of a batting race and a couple who find them very familiar.
Oakland leftfielder Rickey Henderson is one of the new kids, and his .325 average through Sunday gave him a six-point lead over his closest pursuer, Kansas City's George Brett. Henderson is already a lock to win the stolen-base crown. Should he win the batting title, too, he would join Ty Cobb (1907, '09, 11, '15 and '17), George Sisler (1922) and George (Snuffy) Stirnweiss (1945) as the only American League players to triumph in both categories in the same season. But chances are, another righthanded batter won't win the race. Kirby Puckett of the Twins led the league last season, and if Henderson were to follow him, it would be the first time since the 1954 and '55 seasons that righthanded hitters (Al Kaline and Bobby Avila, respectively) won consecutive American League batting championships. "It would be an honor to win, but I'm not thinking about it; I'm thinking World Series," says Henderson. "At the end of my career, I'd like to look back and say I've done most everything in baseball."
Brett is another player who has done almost everything already. He has two batting crowns but hasn't won one since his phenomenal .390 season of 1980. If he were to prevail this season, the 10-year span between titles would be the longest since Ted Williams's 1948-57 parlay. Through Sunday, Brett had hit .393 since the All-Star break.
In third behind Brett was Texas first baseman Rafael Palmeiro (.318), who is attempting to become the first Ranger to win a batting title. "It would be a pretty big deal [if I won]," said Palmeiro. "But if I don't, a great hitter will." Palmeiro might seem like the pretender in this group, but he has been a batting race runner-up before; while playing for the Cubs in 1988, he finished second to the Padres' Tony Gwynn.
Tiger shortstop Alan Trammell (.312 through Sunday) is perhaps the most perplexing contender to handicap. He is attempting to hit .300 for the sixth time in his 13-year career, but he has also hit less than .270 five times. In 1989, his average dropped 68 points from the previous season, to .243. It could rebound even higher this season. Should Trammell win, he would be the first American League shortstop since Lou Boudreau in 1944 to win a batting crown.
Boston centerfielder Ellis Burks is probably the hottest hitter in the race. In the 15 games from Aug. 19 to Sept. 2, he hit an even .400 to bring his season's average to .314. But the player whom the other contenders fear the most is his teammate, third baseman Wade Boggs. At week's end, Boggs was hitting .311, but he said, "In 1984, I was hitting .300 heading into the last month and wound up hitting .325. It's a matter of getting some breaks."
Some observers believe Boggs is due for a sizzling stretch run, which will be necessary if he is to pass Henderson and win his sixth batting title. "I think it's in reach," says Boggs. "I'm not giving up."
Boggs needs 39 hits in the last 30 games to reach 200 hits for the eighth straight season, which would tie Willie Keeler's major league record. It helps Boggs's chances that 18 of Boston's last 30 games are at Fenway Park, where he is hitting .381, in contrast to his .249 average on the road. "I've said all year that I'm swinging the bat better now than I have at any time in my career," says Boggs. "To hit .350 or .360, you have to have a lot of luck."
Last week Brett talked about the difficulties of hitting for a high average and the reasons that no one has approached the .390 average he put up in '80. "In 10 years the game has changed," said Brett. "They've come up with new pitches like the split-finger [fastball]. Guys coming out of college are better. I think the quality of baseball is better than it was 10 or 15 years ago."
In this Year of the No-Hitter, it's only right that Toronto's Dave Stieb threw one. Three times in the previous two seasons, Stieb missed no-hitters with two out in the ninth inning. In 1988 he lost one on a bad-hop single by Cleveland's Julio Franco and another on a 110-foot bloop single by Baltimore's Jim Traber. Last year a clean double by the Yankees' Roberto Kelly cost Stieb not only a no-hitter but a perfect game as well.
But no last-second spoilers were in Cleveland on Sunday. Stieb tossed the first no-hitter in Toronto's history, beating the Indians 3-0. It was the ninth no-hitter of the season, extending a record. "Maybe it's not so tough to get one this year, that's why I got one," said Stieb.
The no-hitter improved Stieb's 1990 record to 17-5. No Blue Jay has ever won 18 games in a season. After Sunday's game, he said he had had better stuff in his near no-hitters. "It takes a lot of luck," said Stieb, who walked four and struck out nine against Cleveland. "That's exactly how I did it today."
There was something of a home-crowd atmosphere for the game. About 6,000 members of the Blue Jays' Fan Club were in the crowd of 23,640. As he stood on the mound after completing his gem, Stieb pointed up to the press box at free-lance writer Kevin Boland, who was the coauthor of Stieb's 1986 autobiography, Tomorrow I'll Be Perfect. Said Stieb later, "This was close enough to being perfect for me."
When Mississippi State manager Ron Polk would visit the mound to talk to his pitcher in the late innings of games in 1984-85, a ball would be thrown to rightfielder Bobby Thigpen so that he could loosen up with members of the bullpen. As soon as' Polk pointed toward rightfield, Thigpen would run to the mound, throw a bunch of fast-balls past overmatched hitters and pick up a save. A few things have changed. Thigpen doesn't play the outfield anymore, he warms up in the bullpen, and he has developed a pretty good breaking ball. But he still throws a bunch of fast-balls and still saves a lot of games. Last Saturday he picked up his 46th save, tying the major league record set by Dave Righetti in 1986.
Thigpen's transformation from outfielder to ace reliever has come more quickly than anyone expected. "I never thought he'd be this good," says Texas's Rafael Palmeiro, a former Mississippi State teammate. The White Sox, who selected Thigpen as a pitcher, not an outfielder, with a fourth-round draft pick in 1985, tried to make him a starter in the minors in 1986. "I was terrible," says Thigpen. "I couldn't deal with the inactivity of being a starter."
An ultracompetitive athlete, Thigpen thrives on work. Only 33 students were in his senior class at Osceola (Fla.) Christian High, so he pitched and played shortstop on the baseball team, played guard on the basketball team and was a tight end, middle linebacker and placekicker on the football team. He has pitched in four games in a row on two occasions this season and twice has had to be told by manager Jeff Torborg, "You're not pitching tonight. Even if we have to lose, you're not pitching."
The Sox haven't lost often when Thigpen pitches: His 46 saves have come in 53 tries. But the save record is not that important to him. "Our other relievers talk about it more than I do," says Thigpen. He credits the deep Chicago bullpen for his success: "[Reliever] Barry Jones always says when he walks a guy with a four-run lead [creating a save situation], 'I'm the best setup man there is.' "
The Yankees have traded many pitchers whom they now wish they hadn't. Three of them, Doug Drabek of the Pirates, Ed Whitson of the Padres and Bob Tewksbury of the Cardinals, were a combined 38-16 through Sunday. Who did the Yankees get in return for those three players (and four minor leaguers)? Tim Stoddard, Rick Rhoden, Steve Trout, Pat Clements and Cecilio Guante.
Drabek, 28, acquired as part of a deal for Rhoden in November 1986, is the leading candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. He is tied with Frank Viola of the Mets for the league lead in victories (17 at week's end) and is second in winning percentage (17-5, .773). He must also lead the league in lopsided victories; the Pirates outscored their opponents 114-31 in his 17 victories. In the last five seasons his ERA has steadily declined, dropping from 4.10 to 3.88, 3.08, 2.80 and his current 2.77.
Whitson, 35, who was sent to San Diego for Stoddard in July 1986, is leading the National League in ERA (2.31 through Sunday). He is with his sixth team (counting two stints with the Padres). No National League ERA winner has ever won the title while playing for his sixth team.
Tewksbury, 29, may be the National League's Comeback Player of the Year. He floundered in the Yankee and Cub chains from 1986-88 and then, after recovering from a shoulder injury, won 13 games for the Cardinals' Triple A Louisville team in '89. When he was called up by St. Louis this June, Tewksbury decided it was time to establish himself or go home. "I was tired of bouncing around," he says. With a 9-4 record and a 2.55 ERA at week's end, he's now the Cardinals' top starter.
WAIT'LL NEXT YEAR
Keep this in mind: In the 1980s—excluding the strike year of 1981—every National League team that led its division on Sept. 1 went on to win the division. In the American League, four teams that led on Sept. 1 didn't win the division, but none of those four led by more than 2½ games. On Sept. 1, 1990, the division leaders were the Red Sox (6½ games), A's (6½), Reds (5½) and Pirates (½ game)....
Last year the Padres' Bruce Hurst was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball when it came to finishing games. From the eighth inning on, he threw 30 innings and gave up one run. Through Sunday, Hurst had pitched 11‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings from the eighth inning on and allowed 11 runs....
How bad have the Braves been? They have had 21 straight losing months. Every other team has at least played .500 ball for one month this season....
Yankee coach Buck Showalter on New York outfielder Oscar Azocar, who was a pitcher in the Yankee system from 1984 through '86: "His worst tool as an outfielder is his arm, which says something about his pitching. His best pitch was a screwball, which says something about Oscar."...
Expanding the rosters to 40 players for September rewards young players who have been productive in the minors and allows teams to get a look at their prospects. However, it still doesn't make any sense to play the game with 25 players for five months and then change the rules for the most important month of the season.
BETWEEN THE LINES
NO. 1 DAD
Until last week, Oriole infielder Rene Gonzales had the major leagues' most unusual uniform number—88. Now comes the number 1 being worn by pitcher Matt Young of the Mariners. He chose that after giving up his number 30 to Ken Griffey Sr. Young is believed to be the first pitcher to wear a single-digit number since Atlee Hammaker sported number 7 with the Giants for a while in 1985 and '86. "There's nothing scientific to it," says Young. "I gave a list of numbers to my [eight-year-old] daughter Brynn, and she said, I want this one.' It looks funny on a pitcher's back, but I couldn't disappoint my daughter."
WILD AT HEART
Few singles hitters with career averages under .260 have four nicknames and a fan club, but few play with the enthusiasm of the Cardinals' Rex Hudler. St. Louis was a somnambulant team until August, when manager Joe Torre started to play Hudler, a former high school football star whose hustling play on the diamond has earned him the nicknames Hurricane, Head First, Rex-Citable and, of course, Rex the Wonder Dog. Says Hudler, "The only thing that worries me is that kids write me letters about how they slid head-first and knocked the second baseman down. My wild style is done because it's my profession. I want it to be fun for them."
ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE
On Aug. 30, Kansas City's Bo Jackson had one of those Bo-daciously spectacular days against Oakland—two sliding catches, two assists and a 425-foot home run into the wind off Dennis Eckersley. But the highlight of the game came in the seventh inning when he threw out A's catcher Terry Steinbach, who was trying to score from third base on a single to leftfield. Jackson deked Steinbach into thinking he was going to catch the ball, scooped it up and threw a laser to the plate to nail him. Royals catcher Bob Boone, who made the tag on Steinbach, said he had never seen that play made in his 22 years in pro ball.
There have been three inside-the-park grand slams this year, and two of them occurred last week. Ron Karkovice of the White Sox hit one against the Twins on Aug. 30, and two days later Mike Greenwell of the Red Sox hit one against the Yankees. Karkovice's was the cheapest. His line drive in the fourth inning was very nearly caught by Twins shortstop Greg Gagne, but it rolled all the way to the left center-field wall. Centerfielder John Moses slipped and fell on the warning track, before flipping the ball to leftfielder Dan Gladden. But Gladden was facing the plate and didn't see it coming. All this time, Karkovice was circling the bases. "I know it's rare, especially for a big catcher," says Karkovice. "The guys said when I rounded third, my face was beet-red. I thought I was going to lose it."
BY THE NUMBERS
•Rangers pitcher Charlie Hough walked 10 Angel hitters in five-plus innings on Aug. 27 but left with the game tied, 1-1. Five days later, Hough's teammate Bobby Witt walked 10 in a 3-2 win over the A's.
•Padre shortstop Garry Templeton has 376 career errors, the most ever by a shortstop who played his entire career after World War II. Dick Groat had 374.
•Ranger pitcher Nolan Ryan has struck out the side 14 times this year. The entire Twins staff has done it twice.