A FATEFUL NIGHT?
Remember Aug. 13—that was Friday the 13th. It was the night that one division race all but officially ended and another might have been decided by one of the biggest turnaround wins of the year. It was a night of destiny for two front-running teams and of bad omens for their pursuers.
In the National League East, the Cardinals trailed the Phillies by eight games heading into their Friday night game in Montreal, a deficit St. Louis pitcher Bob Tewksbury called "Def Con 5, an all-out nuclear alert." The Cards then went out and blew a 3-0 lead and lost 4-3 in 11 innings.
Even though Montreal manager Felipe Alou had used up all of his position players with a series of strange moves—he had already pinch-hit for his catcher twice by the eighth inning—the Expos won on a sacrifice fly by pitcher Dennis Martinez, who had to pinch-hit for reliever John Wetteland. Adding to the comedy of the moment, Martinez looked toward leftfield when he hit the ball, thinking it was headed in that direction, when in fact it was going to right.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Phils were trailing the Mets 5-4 after eight innings but then scored five times in the ninth to win 9-5. The big blow: a grand slam by Kim Batiste, who had not batted in August and had only one hit since July 5. "I can honestly say that's the first grand slam I've ever had, going back to when I was five in Pee Wee ball," Batiste said. His blast gave the Phillies a nine-game lead. End of race.
In the American League West, the White Sox led the Royals by 2½ games and the Rangers by three going into the games of Friday the 13th. But Chicago was staggering, having lost six of its last nine, including one to Kansas City the night before. The White Sox were trailing again, 4-2 going into the bottom of the eighth on Friday night. And they were facing the best reliever in the game this season, Jeff Montgomery, who had converted 24 straight save opportunities.
Montgomery had allowed only one home run this year—and none to right-handed hitters since Aug. 4, 1992. But White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, who is challenging the Blue Jays' John Olerud for MVP honors in the American League, hit a monstrous two-out, two-run homer for a 5-4 victory that drove a stake through the Royals. Instead of being 1½ games out, they fell 3½ back.
"If we finish one game behind," Montgomery said, "we can say why it ended that way." And White Sox manager Gene Lamont had to admit, "It's hard to put a lot of emphasis on one game, but that's as good as it gets."
It couldn't have gotten much worse for the Rangers, who were tied 3-3 in Cleveland and had runners at first (Rafael Palmeiro) and second (Doug Strange) with one out in the eighth and slugger Juan Gonzalez at the plate. He hit a line drive that Indian leftfielder Albert Belle dived for but dropped. Strange didn't realize the ball hadn't been caught, so he stayed at second. Belle heaved the ball from his knees into the infield, where it was retrieved by pitcher Jeremy Hernandez, who was so confused he had to be told by shortstop Felix Fermin to throw the ball to third for the force on Strange. Third baseman Jim Thome was so befuddled, he had to be told by second baseman Carlos Baerga to throw to second to get the force on Palmeiro for a 7-1-5-6 double play.
The Indians then scored three in the bottom of the inning to win 6-3. "Unbelievable," said Gonzalez.
Believe it. The next night the White Sox beat the Royals again, and the Rangers dropped another decision to the Indians, quite possibly sending Chicago on the way to its first division title since 1983.
TOP TO BOTTOM
In the last few seasons a handful of teams suddenly have made going from last place to first in one year look easy. The Twins and the Braves, both of whom went from the basement in 1990 to the penthouse in '91, were the first teams in this century to do it. And the Phillies appear to be a lock to do it this year, with the Red Sox also having a shot at the worst-to-first trip.
But it's the reverse route—going from first place to last in one year—that is unique. The only team to do it was the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics, who dropped from 99-53 in 1914 to 43-109 the next year. Owner Connie Mack had to sell most of his high-priced veteran players after the '14 season to relieve financial pressures on the team. The A's wound up finishing last for seven straight years, and it wasn't until 1929 that they were able to finish first again.
The Oakland A's have a chance to duplicate their forefathers' dubious feat. The A's went 96-66 and won the American League West last season, but as of Sunday they occupied the division cellar with a 47-68 record and trailed the sixth-place Twins by five games. But unlike Mack's A's, this team's immediate future isn't so bleak.
To be sure, the A's have been victimized by their horrendous play, but they also have been weakened by injuries, the most significant being the bruised left heel that has sidelined first baseman Mark McGwire since early May. Before he was hurt McGwire was hitting .337, with nine homers and 24 RBIs in 25 games. In the team's 90 games since, Oakland first basemen had batted only .237, hit 10 home runs and driven in 31 runs.
General manager Sandy Alderson saw fit to trade leftfielder Rickey Henderson to the Blue Jays for two minor leaguers on July 31, partly out of fear of losing Henderson to free agency after this season. A's fans didn't think Alderson got enough for Henderson and seemed fearful the team was being dismantled. "Some people are saying we're San Diego North," says Alderson, referring to the purging of the Padres. "That's absolutely ridiculous. They must be overlooking the $70 million we spent in December."
That money was used to re-sign McGwire, outfielder Ruben Sierra and catcher Terry Steinbach, all of them free agents, in order to stabilize a lineup that even without Henderson is respectable when healthy. "Now we're looking to stabilize our pitching," says Alderson. That's a bigger job, because at week's end Oakland's starting pitchers had a combined ERA of 5.37—worst in the league.
The rebuilding of the staff should be boosted by righthander Steve Karsay, one of the players acquired from Toronto and one of the game's top prospects. With the development of Karsay, rookie Todd Van Poppel (3-3, 5.01, but 3-0, 2.70 in his last three starts) and minor leaguer Miguel Jiminez, Alderson says, "we can reestablish our pitching fairly quickly."
The 1993 Tigers are a perfect example of why teams with poor pitching, shaky defense and a powerful all-or-nothing offense rarely sustain their success. When Detroit's bats are booming, there's no more awesome sight in baseball. Just last week the Tigers shelled the Orioles 15-1, 15-5 and 17-11 to become the first team in this century to score 45 or more runs over the course of three consecutive games twice in a season. Detroit out-scored the Twins 45-10 from April 23 through April 25.
Also last week the Tigers became the second team in history (the '78 Brewers were the other) to hit grand slams in three straight games. Outfielder Dan Gladden hit one in each of the first two games against the Orioles, and catcher Chad Kreuter did it the next night.
But that's the problem: The Tigers' outbursts come in bunches. (Their two 20-run games, against the A's and the Mariners, came within four days in mid-April.) The rest of the time Detroit is as beatable as the Rockies. Even Tiger manager Sparky Anderson admits his team's big-swing style makes it "one of the easier teams to shut out." Or at least to shut down.
After the wipeout of the Orioles had moved them within seven games of first place in the American League East, the Tigers went to Milwaukee last Friday with the hope of getting back into a race they had dominated the first half of the season. Instead Detroit totaled 12 hits, including 11 singles, in losing a doubleheader 6-1 and 7-1 and dropping back to .500.
BY THE NUMBERS
At week's end Blue Jay pitcher Juan Guzman had thrown 21 wild pitches—three short of the American League record for one season, set by Jack Morris in 1987. (The major league record is 30, by Leon Ames in 1905.) Guzman has thrown 45 wild pitches in 474 career innings. By contrast, former Oriole reliever Dick Hall had one wild pitch in 1,259 innings.