Three teams that seemed without hope of contending for a pennant not long ago are making a run at divisional titles. The Giants, Royals and Red Sox should be commended for their persistence, but they should also be thankful that baseball has no great teams this year. Since divisional play began in 1969, there has been only one year, 1982, in which no team played .600 ball. It might happen again in this streaky, freaky season. Through Sunday only one team (the Pirates) was over .600.
The Giants were 12-29 on May 24, and at the All-Star break they were 14½ games behind the first-place Dodgers in the National League West. At week's end San Francisco had won 19 of its last 28 to pull within eight games of Los Angeles. The Giants' pitching, a disaster earlier in the season, has improved, thanks to 25-year-old lefty Trevor Wilson; veteran Dave Righetti, who, after a shaky start, is once again a top closer; and flaky rookie Paul McClellan. When manager Roger Craig went to the mound on Aug. 11 to take the ball from him, Craig extended his hand and McClellan shook it.
But the Giants are alive also because their three big guns—first baseman Will Clark, leftfielder Kevin Mitchell and third baseman Matt Williams—have been outstanding most of the second half. Clark, Mitchell and Williams have taken turns leading the league in RBIs the last three years—the first time three teammates have done that in National League history—and if they finish 1-2-3 in the league in home runs, which is a possibility, they would become the first trio from the same team to accomplish that feat. "They're the best threesome in the league—no one else is close," says a National League West scout. "And they play in the worst ballpark [Candlestick] to hit. With the wind blowing in at night, you have to crush the ball to get it out."
Clark is having an MVP year: .311 average, 23 homers and a league-leading 90 RBIs through Sunday. "Once I get 300 at bats, I start zeroing in," he says, explaining his recent hot streak.
Injuries have kept Mitchell from zeroing in most of the year, yet at week's end he had 23 homers in only 291 at bats. From the start of the '89 season through last weekend, Mitchell had 105 home runs, 21 more than any other National League player over that span. "There's a misconception about Kevin," says Williams. "People don't realize how disciplined a hitter he is. He's not standing up there flailing away. He's got a game plan for every at bat."
Williams can be very undisciplined, as evidenced by his 94 strikeouts and 19 walks through Sunday, but he also had 24 homers and 69 RBIs. "I remember Frank Howard saying all aggressive hitters are going to look stupid at times," says Giants catcher Terry Kennedy. "I see Matt improving every year. In '89 they wore him out with breaking balls. Not now."
When asked to name the last trio that was as potent as Clark, Mitchell and Williams, Craig said, "I guess it's Mays, McCovey and Cepeda. It's something to watch one of these guys play every day. Watching all three is a treat."
The Royals have relied on pitching and defense to pull themselves into the American League West race. On July 15 they were in last place with a 38-47 record, 11½ games behind the division-leading Twins. At week's end Kansas City was 8½ games out, having won 23 of its last 31 games. The pitching turnaround began against Detroit on July 14, when manager Hal McRae addressed the staff before the game. "It was kind of a butt-kick meeting to set us straight," says pitcher Mark Gubicza. Since that meeting, Royals starters were 16-5 with a 2.94 ERA. And between Aug. 4 and Aug. 14, Kansas City allowed only 10 runs in 10 games, and two of those games went extra innings.
The second part of the Royals' renaissance started in early July, when McRae benched third baseman Kevin Seitzer and shortstop Kurt Stillwell because he wasn't happy with their defense. McRae replaced them with, respectively, utilityman Bill Pecota and rookie David Howard, a' glove whiz. Since then, rookie Sean Berry also has seen time at third. With those changes, plus the manager's son Brian' running down balls in centerfield, Kansas City went eight games (82 innings) without an error. The benching of Seitzer and Stillwell made it clear to everyone on the team that McRae was in charge.
The Red Sox had lost all self-respect after being shut out in Kansas City on Aug. 6 and 7. The second defeat dropped the Sox 11½ games behind the first-place Blue Jays in the American League East, but Boston then went to Toronto on Aug. 9 and pounded Blue Jay pitching for 39 runs in a four-game sweep. Through Sunday the Red Sox had won nine of their last 11 games to inch to within 5½ games of the Jays (page 20). The Red Sox, led by DH Jack Clark (21 homers) and third baseman Wade Boggs (.337 and vying for his sixth batting title), have finally started to hit. In their last 11 games they've scored 71 runs.
The Yankees were doing so well. They were playing better than expected. They were using homegrown young talent. They were making the franchise look attractive once again to potential free agents. Then on Aug. 15 the Yanks became the laughingstock of baseball by benching Don Mattingly—their best player and one of the truest Yankees ever—because he wouldn't get his hair cut. "Sounds like something Steinbrenner would do," said Giants manager Roger Craig.
The next day Yankee manager Stump Merrill and general manager Gene Michael said that they had been too hasty in their punishment of Mattingly, who played that night. The next afternoon he got his locks trimmed. But the damage was done. Mattingly revealed that he had asked to be traded two months earlier. Michael said he has no plans to trade him, but don't be surprised if he does revert to another Yankee tradition—firing the manager. Merrill is a nice guy, but as one Yankee said, "Not one player respects him." Merrill has stayed on this long—he replaced Bucky Dent on June 6, 1990—only because the Yankees are trying to establish some stability, which they have done. But some of that post-Steinbrenner stability and respect were lost with the Yankee clippers.
Following a 4-1 loss to San Francisco on Aug. 15—a night in which Reds pitcher Jose Rijo and third baseman Chris Sabo scuffled in the dugout—Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella said disgustedly, "This club hasn't handled winning too well." No kidding. It has been a season of holdouts, complaints, suspensions and clashes with umpires. On top of that comes an altercation between teammates. Through Sunday the fourth-place Reds were 57-59, almost as close to the last-place Astros as they were to the first-place Dodgers. Only one team since divisional play began (Baltimore in 1984) has finished as low as fifth the year after winning the World Series.
"I don't think anyone is dogging it," says Cincy pitcher Norm Charlton. "No one is showing up at the last minute and not getting his work in. Everyone is frustrated. We miss guys from last year, like Ron Oester [who became a free agent after last season and was not offered a contract] and Ken Griffey [released and now with Seattle]. If someone acted up, those two would pull him aside and say, 'Hey, you're out of line.' We miss that."
Look for the Reds to make some changes, beginning with the departure of pitcher Jack Armstrong. A spring training holdout, Armstrong was shelled (22 homers, 5.57 ERA in 106⅖ innings) before being sent to Triple A on Aug. 4. Outfielder Eric Davis and shortstop Barry Larkin will be eligible for free agency after the '92 season. Both are represented by agent Eric Goldschmidt, who is no fan of Cincinnati's management. Goldschmidt will probably shop Davis and Larkin to some West Coast teams, just as he did with Darryl Strawberry, who wound up with the Dodgers.
Angel rightfielder Dave Winfield's bid for the Hall of Fame got a boost last week. On Aug. 14 he hit his 400th career homer to move to 23rd on the alltime list and collected his 1,580th RBI to move to 20th on that list. Of the top 22 home run hitters, all but four are in the Hall of Fame, and two of the four, Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt, will be inducted when they become eligible (the other two, Dave Kingman and Darrell Evans, won't make it). Of the 19 top RBI men, all but three are in the Hall: Jackson, Schmidt and another Cooperstown shoo-in, Tony Perez.
Los Angeles second baseman Juan Samuel has told friends that he will leave the team via free agency after the season. First baseman Eddie Murray could be gone, too. He's a potential free agent and will certainly want at least $10 million over three years to re-sign with the Dodgers. Murray is 35 and was hitting .244 through Sunday. If he leaves, L.A. will go with Triple A first baseman Eric Karros, a big, strong hitter who is slow and has had defensive difficulties....
One of the best young players in the game is Chicago White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura, who was hitting .305 with 17 homers and 72 RBIs as of Sunday. Remarkably, he's playing with a split contract, meaning the White Sox weren't sure he wouldn't spend some time in the minor leagues this season. Ventura's contract is worth $150,000 if he stays in the majors all season, much less should he go to the minors. That, of course, is not going to happen....
More bad news for the Cleveland Indians. Pitcher John Farrell, who has been sidelined this year with an injured right elbow, might need more surgery on it. If he does, he could miss all of 1992 as well....
Should the White Sox lose the American League West by one game, remember the night of Aug. 16. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth and Yankee runners on first and third, Ventura fielded Roberto Kelly's grounder and turned to throw to second. Second baseman Joey Cora failed to cover second, so Ventura had to go to first. Kelly beat the throw, the run scored, and Chicago lost.
Of the first 147 career home runs hit by San Diego's Fred McGriff, only one was a grand slam. Then McGriff hit grand slams in back-to-back games against the Astros last week. He is only the third National League player since the turn of the century to hit grand slam homers in consecutive games and the first since Pittsburgh's Phil Garner did it in 1978. McGriff got his second slam off Jim Deshaies, who had not allowed a grand slam in his five full major league seasons.
By the Numbers
•When Mike Mussina struck out 10 Rangers on Aug. 14, he became only the second Baltimore pitcher in 440 games to fan at least 10 batters in a game. In his last 440 starts, Texas's Nolan Ryan has struck out at least 10 batters 123 times.
Saves are the usual benchmark for determining the effectiveness of a relief pitcher. But a more telling statistic may be how often a reliever allows inherited base runners to score. Here are the best and worst relievers at stranding inherited runners&and, oh, yes, we've provided their save stats too.
Juan Berenguer, Braves
Dave Righetti, Giants
Mike Jackson, Mariners
Mike Henneman, Tigers
Rob Dibble, Reds
Lee Smith, Cardinals
Jeff Montgomery, Royals
Paul Assenmacher, Cubs
Jeff Russell, Rangers
Gregg Olson, Orioles
Minimum 20 inherited runners and 10 saves through Aug. 17
SOURCE: STATS, INC.