Baltimore (7-0) players broke the champagne out of the cooler before their game last Saturday, but management, crying "too early," put the stopper on any cork popping until after the Orioles had won 10-5 that night for their seventh consecutive victory. In truth, the would-be celebrants were a bit late. A Detroit (3-4) loss in an afternoon game had already clinched the Eastern Division pennant for the Orioles. Rarely has a team won the flag so early or so resoundingly. Leading by 18½ games now, they have been in first place since April 16 and have led by 10 games or more since late June. With the majors' best pitching (2.86 staff ERA) and the league's highest scoring offense, the Orioles are within range of breaking the record for most victories in a season (111) set by the 1954 Indians. Even with regular-season championships in all three major professional team sports this year, Baltimore fans still have a score to settle. The football Colts and basketball Bullets were both knocked off in postseason play by underdog New York teams. With the Mets now a possible World Series opponent, the Orioles may have an opportunity to break that jinx. Washington (4-3) looked ready to clinch fourth place and its first over- .500 season since 1952. Manager Ted Williams predictably has improved the Senators' hitting, which is up 30 points this year, but he has also shown a deft touch with his pitchers, particularly Casey Cox. Cox, winless in 1968, last week picked up his 12th victory in 17 decisions. Boston's (4-4) Rico Petrocelli hit three home runs to bring his season's total to 38, one short of Vern Stephens' league record for shortstops. Bobby Murcer, who was heralded this spring in New York (3-5) as the next Mickey Mantle, has broken out of a long, midsummer slump to hit nine homers in the past three weeks. Murcer's four clouts last week gave him 26 for the year, three more than Mantle hit in his first season. As Cleveland (1-6) slumped more than 40 games from first, one Indian player said, "This is a team without pride. All pride was lost before May 1, and everybody quit way back then. Everybody waited for something to happen to pick us up, but nobody went out and broke his back trying to lift up the team himself." The Western Division's expansion teams, Seattle (5-3) and Kansas City (5-2), were driving to finish ahead of two older clubs, Chicago (4-4) and California (4-4). The Pilots moved to within 1½ games of fifth place on tightly pitched wins by veterans Steve Barber and George Brunet and a complete-game victory by 20-year-old Miguel Fuentes. With a big boost from Wally Bunker, the Royals moved within 2½ games of third place. Bunker, who won 19 games for the Orioles in 1964 before injuring his arm, threw a one-hitter. "I'm a much better pitcher than I was in '64," he said. "I had only two pitches then, a fastball and a sinker Now I've developed a curve, and my control is sharper." Tommy John and Wilbur Wood combined for a 3-2 victory, and then Joel Horlen threw a three-hit shutout to give the White Sox two of their four wins. Andy Messersmith continued to star even as the Angels slumped. The 24-year-old righthander, who began the season with five straight losses, pitched two complete-game wins to increase his record to 15-9. Minnesota (2-5), leading by eight games and virtually certain of a division title, received good news for the playoffs as Dean Chance, who missed most of the season because of an injury, pitched his first complete game of the year, allowing only one run. The Twins' other high-priced starter, Jim Kaat, who has also been ailing, showed strong form for the second straight time in relief. In his latest appearance the $55,000-a-year lefthander pitched five innings, allowing one run and earning only his second win over the last six weeks. Oakland's (3-5) Reggie Jackson, knocked from sole possession of the league home-run lead by the Senators' Frank Howard, was then bumped out of the lineup with a case of the hives.
Standings—East: Balt 102-45, Det 83-63, Bos 78-67, Wash 76-71, NY 72-74, Clev 57-90, West: Minn 87-58, Oak 79-66, Cal 63-81, KC 61-84, Chi 58-86, Sea 57-88.
Hoyt Wilhelm (below) and Phil Niekro were not the only Braves starring as Atlanta (6-1) moved to the top of the Western Division. Henry Aaron hit two home runs, one of them the 550th of his career, and did an about-face from his talk of retirement earlier this season. ' I've never admitted this before," said Aaron, "but I'd like to go for Babe Ruth's home-run record." According to Aaron, one person who might prevent him from staying with the Braves for the four or five years he figures it would take him to catch Ruth is Brave announcer Milo Hamilton. Aaron and Hamilton have had a running feud for two years, and Henry said last week, "I want them to get that man off my back before I sign for next year." While the fans took sides—old lady radio listeners rooting for Hamilton while other fans carried banners saying, TRADE MILO—KEEP HANK, the Braves' front office called in the unfriendly pair and settled their differences. "It would be a shame for Aaron to quit because of me," said Hamilton. "If his arm doesn't fall off, the Reds can win the World Series," said one reporter of Cincinnati's (4-4) Reliever Wayne Granger. Granger, who has appeared in 79 games this season, pitched seven times last week and figured in all the Reds' wins, as they remained within two games of first place. Los Angeles (5-2) broke a four-game losing streak with some help from Mickey Mouse. In a pregame meeting before the victory that broke the slump, Manager Walter Alston pulled out a windup, laughing MM that had been sent in by a fan. "Laugh with Mickey and relax," said Alston, and his team went out to beat the Braves 4-0 behind Bill Singer. Houston (3-4) moved within two games of first with three consecutive wins but then slumped back to 5½ games out with four straight losses. Two of the defeats were heartbreakers for Astro pitchers. Don Wilson lost a five-hitter 1-0, and then Larry Dierker pitched 8‚Öî innings of perfect ball, but his team lost 3-2 in the 13th. San Francisco (3-5) sagged from first to third, but Manager Clyde King was not discouraged. He plans to win the pennant during the Giants' six games in 11 days against last-place San Diego (1-6) at the end of the season. "If we can stay within a game of the top going into the last week, our chances are good," said King. While shocking New York (8-1) ran its winning streak to 10 games and shocked Chicago (1-6) fell from the lead to 3½ games behind in the Eastern Division (page 28), Pittsburgh (3-6) and St. Louis (6-2) were all but bounced out of the pennant race. The Cards returned to third place but failed to gain ground on the leaders despite strong pitching by starters Chuck Taylor, Nelson Briles and Bob Gibson and Reliever Mudcat Grant, who earned two saves and a victory in four games. The usually high-scoring Pirates, who began the week in position to threaten for the lead, fell 10 games behind when they batted only .196 for the week, nearly 100 points less than their season's average. Tail-enders Montreal (4-4) and Philadelphia (2-5) each took a hand in the pennant race. The Expos defeated the Pirates 4-2 behind Met cast-off Steve Renko's five-hitter. Recalling their own September collapse in 1964, the Phillies took obvious pleasure in turning the tables on the Cubs. After knocking off Chicago in two games, the Phils' John Briggs said, "I can remember the 1964 season when everybody was knocking us around. I say the hell with the Cubs. I don't think they felt sorry for us then."
Standings—East: NY 88-58, Chi 85-62, StL 79-67, Pitt 77-67, Phil 57-87, Mont 47-100, West: Atl 82-65, LA 79-65, SF 80-66, Cin 78-65, Hou 75-69, SD 45-101.
WILHELM: FLOATING HOME
It was about time. After 19 seasons and a record 985 appearances, 46-year-old knuckleball Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm packed his bags in California last week and headed home to Georgia. After all, Wilhelm is a year over the beginning pension age under the players' new retirement plan and he deserves to spend his declining years with his family. The trouble from the opposition's standpoint—is that Wilhelm does not seem to understand about retirements or declines. Traded to the Braves in a waiver deal with the Angels, he arrived in Atlanta just in time to relieve the Braves' only other reliable reliever, Cecil Upshaw, who was dead tired after 55 appearances this season. Wilhelm quickly scored a pair of saves in his first two games with his new team and put Atlanta back into first place in the National League's tight Western Division. The addition of Wilhelm not only makes the Braves a tougher team to beat down the stretch, but it also gives the team the best one-two knuckleball combination in baseball. Atlanta's No. 1 knuckleballer, of course, is Phil Niekro, who won his 20th game last week. This is heady stuff for almost everybody in Atlanta except 20-year-old rookie Catcher Bob Didier. Didier has had remarkable success lunging for Niekro's knuckler this season, but Wilhelm is a whole new problem for him. "Catching Hoyt may be tougher," he says. "I've detected a pattern with Phil's knuckleball. It usually breaks down. But Hoyt's jumps a lot of different ways." Wilhelm, who throws his floater almost effortlessly, claims he will not retire for another year or two. By then, unless he has discovered a pattern in Wilhelm's tosses, too, Didier may be thinking of his own retirement.