Baseball: Midseason Report

July 17, 1994

In Case You Missed It

Kirk Gibson of the Tigers, who retired from baseball in May 1992 because he thought he had lost his playing skills (and who unretired nine months later), is making a run at the first 100-RBI season of his 16-year career. He went 4 for 4 and drove in his 50th run on July 5. If he reaches the century mark, the 37-year-old Gibson will be the oldest player to drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career.

Gibson's comeback is just one of many good stories that have been overshadowed by, among other headline-grabbing developments, the assault on Roger Maris's single-season home run record by Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners, Frank Thomas of the White Sox and Matt Williams of the Giants. Here's the scoop on some of the players, teams and trends that have been similarly overlooked:

The red-hot A's. For two months they looked more like the F's, going 16-40 (.286) and falling 11 games out in the American League West. But through Sunday, Oakland had won 23 of its last 31 outings to move within three games of the first-place Rangers in the majors' weakest division. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team that had a winning percentage of less than .300 after 50 games has gone on to win a division title or pennant. (The 1974 Pirates won the National League East after losing 32 of their first 50 games, a .360 percentage.)

The A's turnaround can be attributed to the patience and leadership of manager Tony La Russa. A lot of teams would have folded in these circumstances: second baseman Brent Gates out for four weeks with a sprained right thumb, first baseman Mark McGwire sidelined seven weeks with a recurring heel injury, spark plug Rickey Henderson and stopper Dennis Eckersley only recently playing up to their ability, and a shaky starting rotation that was further weakened when highly touted rookie righthander Steve Karsay was shelved by an elbow injury.

Here's the best example of how La Russa has pieced together wins: On July 4 he used five pitchers—Steve Ontiveros, Mark Acre, Dave Leiper, Billy Taylor and Ed Vosberg—to shut out the Yankees, who had the best record in the American League.

Albert Belle. With a .357 average, 25 home runs and 76 RBIs at the All-Star break, the Indian leftfielder was among the leading candidates for the American League MVP award, but no one had heard a peep out of him because he had decided to stop talking to the media until the World Series. (If the Tribe doesn't make it, does that mean Belle will take calls at home during the Fall Classic?) Cleveland teammate Rene Gonzales calls Belle "the most intense hitter I've ever seen. And I played with a guy in the minor leagues [Mike Gates] who once took the mattress off the bed in his hotel room, put it up against the wall and hit socks into it."

Bret Saberhagen. He was on the trading block in the spring, but the Mets' asking price for the two-time Cy Young winner was so high that no team bit. Since then Saberhagen has been so good (10-4, 3.15 through Sunday) that New York may rebuild its staff around him. Saberhagen's control has been great; he has allowed more homers (12) than walks (10) in 128⅖ innings. According to Elias the only pitchers to allow more homers than walks in a season (minimum 150 innings) were the Phils' Robin Roberts (46-40) in 1956 and the Reds' Gary Nolan (28-27) in '76.

The Streak. This year nobody was saying the play of Cal Ripken Jr. had suffered because he refuses to take a day off. Through Sunday, at which point he had played in 1,983 straight games, the Oriole shortstop was hitting .306 with 12 homers and 65 RBIs, and he had committed only six errors. A year ago, when Ripken was struggling to hit .257, detractors said he should put the team first and take a breather. By the way, Ripken has started every game in his run at Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played.

The Indian rotation. The first four starters—Mark Clark (10-3), Dennis Martinez (8-4), Jack Morris (8-5) and Charles Nagy (7-5)—had combined for 33 victories at week's end, giving each of them a good shot at a 15-win season. The last time Cleveland had four 15-game winners was 1954, which also happened to be its last pennant-winning year. The Indians, who shared the American League Central lead with the White Sox at the All-Star break, have had only four 15-game winners in the last nine years.

Time of game. Major league baseball was supposed to be speeding up play this season, but the glut of high-scoring games has thwarted that effort. Through Sunday the average time of a nine-inning National League game was up from 2:44 last season to 2:48 this year. In the American League—even with Carlton Fisk's having retired, remember—the length of the average game had increased from 2:52 to 2:59. There had been four nine-inning games in the American League this year that lasted longer than four hours—including two in consecutive games involving the Indians, who previously had never played a four-hour nine-inning game.

The Ranger pitching staff. At week's end Texas had already used 22 pitchers this season, five short of the major league record. "But you can't project that number [to 44 for the season]," general manager Tom Grieve says, "because we don't have 22 more pitchers."

Bret Boone. Because the Mariners were unhappy with his range and lack of discipline at the plate, they gave up on Boone, their onetime second baseman of the future, and traded him to the Reds last November in a four-player deal. The 25-year-old Boone now plays a deeper second base to enhance his range, and at week's end he was hitting .310 with 49 RBIs. His father, Bob, a Cincinnati coach, never had more than 66 RBIs in his 19-year career as a major league catcher.

Pinch-hit homers. Last season there were 26 pinch homers in the American League, and no team had more than four. Through Sunday, 23 pinch homers had been struck, including four each by the Mariners, the Tigers and the Yankees. In the National League, where 53 pinch homers were hit last year, 30 had been belted this year, four of them by Howard Johnson of the Rockies.

Jaime Navarro. What happened to this big, young Brewer righthander? In 1992, when he was 24, he won 17 games and, after the All-Star break, had a 2.64 ERA. He entered '94 with the most career wins (58) of any American League pitcher born after '67. Navarro has exceptional stuff, but through Sunday he was 3-6 with a 6.88 ERA and had been relegated to the bullpen by the Brewers, who have been unable to unload him to a contender. The word is out that the overweight Navarro has bad work habits, and then there's the matter of his hefty $2.4 million salary.

The disappointing Cardinals. They were supposed to be contenders, but with a 42-42 record at week's end, the only thing they were chasing was the Rockies' big league record of 453 relief-pitcher appearances in a season. Through Sunday, St. Louis pitchers had four complete games and manager Joe Torre had gone to his bullpen 251 times. There were three Cardinal relievers—Rob Murphy (41 appearances), Rich Rodriguez (41) and John Habyan (40)—on pace to pitch in 80 games each. In the last six years only four National League pitchers had pitched in 80 games.

Free-agent steals. Oriole reliever Mark Eichhorn, signed for one year at $525,000, was 5-2 with a 2.09 ERA through Sunday; A's outfielder Stan Javier, signed for one year at $600,000, was hitting .291 with 10 home runs, 40 RBIs and 21 stolen bases; and Red reliever Jeff Brantley, signed for one year at $500,000, was 5-4 with a 2.44 ERA and 11 saves.

Juiced Ball Note of the Week. Blue Jay utilityman Darnell Coles hit three home runs against the Twins on July 5, giving him four for the season and raising his average 38 points, to .183. It was the second three-homer game of his career, and that's one more than Hank Aaron had.

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONThe man who won't quit: At 37, Gibson has set his sights on the first 100-RBI season of his career. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAEven while his A's were falling 24 games under .500, the outmanned La Russa fought the good fight. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAA former 17-game winner, Navarro has plummeted to the depths of the Milwaukee bullpen.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)