There is only one way to follow this wacky pennant race in the American League West. Build a satellite dish the size of the Kingdome, purchase a remote control unit and click from game to game.
Take your eye off this division even for a day and anything can happen. All seven teams have been in first place at some point this year, and all but two—the Oakland A's and the Texas Rangers—have been in the basement. Through Sunday, five teams were within 6½ games of first place, and all seven were .500 or better. Not since divisional play began in 1969 has every team in a division wound up above .500. All in all, the 1991 American League West race promises to provide one of the most exciting finishes in years.
When asked to name the team to beat, first baseman Kent Hrbek of the first-place Minnesota Twins laughs and says, "Seven teams." Indeed, with almost two months left in the season, no team can be written off. "Look at all the people who picked us to finish last," says Hrbek. "They can take their pens and pencils, and they can...."
Last weekend marked the unofficial beginning of the Wild West Show. The feature series was staged in Oakland, where the Twins, who have led the division since the All-Star break, played the A's, who are finding the road to a fourth straight American League West title exceedingly bumpy. In fact, throughout the division it was a bizarre weekend, during which a pitcher hit, a catcher pitched, an All-Star sang, umpires dropped like flies, teams brawled and a home run record was set.
August 11, 1991
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On Friday night in Oakland, the temperature was 59°. No, this wasn't the postseason, but it sure felt that way. The Twins looked exhausted, having played in Minneapolis on Monday night and Tuesday and in New York on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon. "After this, maybe we'll go to Japan," said Minnesota catcher Junior Ortiz. The A's were also weary. They completed a 10-game road trip on Thursday night in Boston, flew all night and got to bed at dawn. "Who makes the schedule?" asked one of the A's. "Mr. Magoo?"
Three hours before the game, Oakland shortstop Walt Weiss took infield practice for the first time since tearing ligaments in his left ankle on June 6. The A's sorely miss him, but he might be back by Sept. 1. Across the field, Twins ace Scott Erickson, who hadn't been effective since straining his right elbow in early July, threw in the bullpen. His pitches didn't have their usual zip. "I have to just throw the ball instead of thinking about [the injury]," said Erickson.
His manager, Tom Kelly, said, "He's confused, he's scared." The Twins can't win without a good finish from Erickson, who, one teammate said, "has gone from He-man to She-man."
The A's had been looking like their old he-men selves of late, having won nine of their last 11 games, and on this night they scratched out a 3-1 victory. Bob Welch pitched his sixth complete game—four more than last year, when he won 27 games—to improve his record to 9-6. Even more impressive, Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach went 4 for 4—he threw out all four Twins who attempted to steal. "I've had four guys steal on me before," said Steinbach, "but I don't think I've ever thrown out four before."
The victory moved the A's to within three games of first place. "This is our time of year," said Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart afterward. "We're primed to make our move."
Click. Earlier in the day the Kansas City Royals brawled with the Cleveland Indians but won 6-4 to give the American League West seven teams over .500. Aug. 2 is the latest any division has had every team over .500 since the American League East on Aug. 30, 1986.
Click. In Milwaukee, Texas used 18 hits to maul the Brewers 15-1. Texas pitcher Mike Jeffcoat batted in the ninth and blooped an RBI double off Edwin Nunez, giving Jeffcoat the first RBI by an American League pitcher since the designated hitter rule was adopted in 1973. "Now everyone is going to kid Rafael Palmeiro about my name being above his in the batting leaders the rest of the season," said the 1.000-hitting Jeffcoat of his .349-hitting teammate. "It was a fun night." There may be more fun nights coming up for Texas. That game began what will be a 21-game stretch against the Brewers, the Indians and the Baltimore Orioles, the league's three worst teams.
Click. In Chicago, the O's stopped the White Sox's eight-game winning streak with a 3-0 shutout to keep Chicago two games out of first. Five Oriole pitchers stymied Chicago, which had scored 72 runs in its previous eight games.
Click. Surging Seattle beat the California Angels 4-3 in Anaheim as Mariners rightfielder Jay Buhner hit his 18th homer. Seattle had shopped for a power hitter earlier this season, only to find him sitting on the bench in the person of Buhner. The loss dropped California, which led the West on the morning of July 4, eight games back. All of a sudden the Angels looked very old.
Saturday morning at the Oakland Coliseum. The Twins were stretching on the field, and they were loose. They don't seem bothered by the pennant race pressure. A photographer from the Donruss baseball card company was taking pictures before the game. The players joked around and split up into groups: blacks in one picture, whites in the other. Ortiz, a Latin, was kicked out by the blacks. He tried to join the whites, but they kicked him out, too. So three photos were taken: one with the blacks, one with the whites and one of Ortiz alone. "I'm not black," said Ortiz, laughing. "I'm not white. I'm me."
That was the beginning of a strange day. In the sixth, third base umpire Larry Barnett pulled a hamstring and left the field for half an inning to have his leg taped. Since fellow umpire Terry Cooney could not work the game because he had aggravated an ankle injury the night before, Greg Kosc and Al Clark were the only arbiters on the field. "That's the first time we've done that since 1973 in Double A ball," said Clark afterward. Barnett wasn't exactly mobile upon his return. "He didn't move," said Clark. "He couldn't move. He was really hurting."
Oakland's Dave Henderson hurt pitcher David West with homers in the first, third and fifth innings to put the A's ahead 3-0. Mark McGwire homered in the sixth, and Jose Canseco in the seventh: 5-0 Oakland. This game was all but over. Remember, though, these are the 1991 A's, not the 1988, '89 or '90 A's, all of which had good pitching. These are the guys who have the third highest ERA (4.63 at week's end) in the league, who have allowed 10 or more runs in a game 10 times this season, who in their 11 games before Saturday had lost leads of three, three, four, five, six and seven runs.
With none on and one out in the eighth and Oakland still up 5-0, A's starter Joe Slusarski walked Minnesota's number 9 hitter, Greg Gagne. "I started wandering around the upper deck in the eighth," said Oakland vice-president Sandy Alderson. "I usually start to wander in the ninth inning, but I smelled something."
It didn't smell good. In a shocking inning that served as a microcosm of each team's season, the unflappable Twins scored seven runs to grab a 7-5 lead. Catcher Brian Harper capped the rally with a three-run homer off someone named Kevin Campbell, one of eight rookie pitchers the A's have had to use this season. Normally, Gene Nelson, a premier setup man, would have been on the mound for Oakland. But in his last nine innings Nelson had allowed seven homers for a 10.04 ERA.
In the Oakland half of the eighth, Harold Baines homered—with the bases empty, of course—but Shane Mack homered off Campbell in the ninth. Final score: 8-6. The loss was Oakland's 12th of the year in which it has scored six or more runs. Last season the A's dropped five such games.
Oakland hit six home runs and lost. They were all solo homers. No team in major league history had ever hit six homers in a game and scored only six runs. The previous record was five runs on five home runs, done once in American League history—by the A's in 1971 against the Washington Senators.
"Did we win that game?" said Kelly as he entered the clubhouse afterward. "I felt like we robbed a bank and got away with it. We were dead. Did anyone think in the sixth we could win it? I have no clue how we came back. There's no rhyme or reason to what happened. It's unbelievable. I have nothing clever left to say."
It was a remarkable press conference for Kelly, who doesn't like crowds of reporters. In the off-season, however, he took a media-relations course. "I'm trying," said Kelly. "Did I overdo it today? People told me to try some things. When you get a little older, you get a little smarter. Twig [Minnesota coach Wayne Terwilliger] told me, 'Live and enjoy life, don't endure it.' "
To which Twins pitching coach Dick Such smiled and said, "Today, we endured seven innings. And then we lived."
Click. Nobody endured more than pitcher Bill Wegman did in Milwaukee. His Brewers teammates made three errors in the first inning, helping Texas score eight unearned runs. Wegman left the game after retiring two batters, but his ERA dropped from 3.48 to 3.46. The Rangers finished with 16 hits in a 14-5 win. Milwaukee catcher Rick Dempsey tossed a scoreless ninth inning and was arguably the best pitcher the Brewers had in the first two games of the series.
Click. The White Sox's best pitcher, All-Star Jack McDowell, is also their best singer and songwriter. Before he faced the Orioles, McDowell's band, V.I.E.W., played a 40-minute concert at a city park. Five hours later, at Comiskey Park, McDowell got R.O.C.K.E.D., allowing 10 hits in two innings. Baltimore rolled 6-3.
Click. In Anaheim, the Angels died a little more. They lost their fourth straight, 9-3 to Seattle. California ace Chuck Finley was scratched from his start because of a toe injury. Buhner hit another homer. Mike Marshall, the Boston Stranger much of this season, made his debut with the Angels and went hitless. Still, the Angels avoided last place thanks to the Royals, who fell 3-1 to Cleveland. "Whenever an opportunity arises, whenever we need to be extremely competitive, we aren't," said California pitcher Kirk McCaskill. "In terms of enthusiasm and desire, something seems to be missing."
Although Sunday morning was the third consecutive overcast day at the Oakland Coliseum, smiles abounded in the Minnesota clubhouse. Pitcher Jack Morris, who got drilled in the foot and the forearm by batted balls in the space of two weeks in July, was wearing a new T-shirt covered with bull's-eyes. Each had a different point value.
During batting practice Oakland catcher Jamie Quirk saw umpire Clark and said jokingly, "Any of you guys plan to go nine innings today?" In the A's clubhouse, pitcher Ron Darling reported to the team. The A's acquired Darling from the Montreal Expos on July 31, even though, as one American League West scout pointed out, Darling has nothing left. Said the scout, "The Mets traded him, they need a pitcher, they're trying to catch the Pirates. Why, if they traded him, would we want him?" Alderson made no predictions for Darling. "Our standards aren't as high as they used to be," he said.
For the moment, though, the A's were wondering what they would get from Stewart, their onetime ace, who was opposing Erickson. Erickson epitomizes the turnaround year of the Twins, who are attempting to become the first team in history to go from last place to first in one season. With less than half a year of major league experience, Erickson was baseball's best pitcher the first half of this season, ripping off 12 straight wins. But in his five most recent starts before Sunday he had a 6.58 ERA.
He was He-man again on Sunday, though, improving his record to 15-3 by permitting only five hits and two runs in 6⅖ innings. "We had a heart-to-heart talk with him this week," said Kelly. "We told him, 'You have to go out there and do it for yourself. You can't pitch scared.' He got after it today. He answered the call. He was great. Boy, that's a load off my mind."
As for Stewart, he gave up nine hits and five runs in five innings and saw his earned run average rise to 5.28. No one is quite sure what's wrong with him. It's not physical. It's not his stuff. "I hear that as I go, so goes the team," said Stewart. "That's an awful lot of weight to put on one guy."
Click. In Chicago, knuckleballer Charlie Hough, 43, went nine innings as the second-place White Sox beat Baltimore 1-0 to keep the pressure on Minnesota. Click. Bret Saberhagen pitched a 2-0 shutout in Cleveland to give the Royals their 16th win in their last 23 games. Click. In Milwaukee, the Rangers and Brewers rumbled before Texas squandered a 2-1 ninth-inning lead—its 17th blown save of the season—and lost 3-2. Click. In Anaheim, Seattle, 17-6 since the All-Star break, defeated the Angels 5-2 in 12 innings on a three-run homer by Buhner—his fourth in four games. The win meant that, for the first time in franchise history, the Mariners were nine games over .500. With the loss, the Angels fell into last place behind the Royals.
At midseason, one American League manager said of the Twins, "I just can't take them seriously." But as of Sunday, with the best record in baseball, Minnesota was the team to beat. The A's certainly take them seriously. "I'm concerned," said Oakland reliever Dennis Eckersley. "We're all concerned."
However, as Stewart said, "There's a lot of baseball left this year, a lot more games to go."
Keep that remote control handy.