THE MVP RACE
The favorite for the National League MVP has to be the Giants' Kevin Mitchell, who at week's end had 40 homers and 110 RBIs. In the American League, however, the picture is murkier. Angel manager Doug Rader is pushing Bert Blyleven, stressing Blyleven's clubhouse contributions as well as his on-field accomplishments. "All the peripheral meanings of the word value should be considered in MVP awards," says Rader. "Bert is responsible for more positives around here than anyone."
Last Thursday, Blyleven raised his record to 14-2 by shutting out the Royals in Kansas City after the Angels had lost the first three games of that crucial series. It was the fifth time this season that Blyleven had broken an Angel losing streak of three games or more. It also was his 10th victory without a loss since May 20.
Still, Milwaukee's Robin Yount may be the leading candidate in the AL. He is among the league leaders in batting average (.318 through Sunday), RBIs (82), runs (79), doubles (33) and triples (8), and he has been caught stealing only three times in 17 attempts. Says Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn, "There are leaders who lead by talking nice. But if something needs to be done, Robin takes care of it in a way that those involved probably don't know it's been done."
Two other players who could attract a lot of votes if they carry their teams down the stretch are Bo Jackson of the Royals and Fred McGriff of the Blue Jays, but don't discount Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. His 18 homers and team-leading 78 RBIs through Sunday don't tell the whole story of his contribution to the Orioles. Says Ripken, "I read where [Dodger catcher] Rick Dempsey says I'd be more productive if I took some more time off. Maybe so, but how does that translate to the team? Maybe my stats would be better, but would the team be better? I get as much enjoyment from turning a double play to hold a lead as I do from hitting a home run." Having played in 1,219 consecutive games through Sunday—a streak exceeded only by Lou Gehrig and Everett Scott—Ripken is the backbone of a club that has been a marvelous surprise this season.
As Labor Day approaches, guess which teams have come out of the shadows to join the pennant hunt. Yup, the I-70 twins from Missouri, the Cardinals and the Royals. Heretofore, the featured attractions in the NL East were the Mets, Expos and Cubs. "We've lurked around," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog. "But I don't know how seriously anyone has taken us." After winning two of three games from Houston last weekend at the Astrodome, the Cardinals were only 2½ games behind the first-place Cubs.
For most of the year St. Louis's main offensive threat had been Pedro Guerrero, but as August closed, other players got hot. Streak-hitting Tom Brunansky hit four homers in one five-day stretch two weeks ago, and Terry Pendleton belted five in August, his one-month career high. "We've gotten a lot out of what we've got," says Herzog.
Joe Magrane, who was 17-7 at week's end, and Jose DeLeon (14-11) have been horses, but after losing three expected starters—Danny Cox, Scott Terry. Greg Matthews—Herzog has had to fill in with Ricky Horton and Ted Power, two rejects from other teams.
In the AL West, Oakland and California have occupied the lead—and most of the press's attention—for more than two months, while Kansas City fell as many as seven games back. When the Royals began a seven-game trip on Aug. 14, they knew they had to improve their 25-34 road record. They lost the opener in Chicago but then won six straight games. Upon returning home, K.C. won three of four games from California and two of three from Oakland. As of Sunday the Royals were only 3½ games in back of the punch-less A's and 2½ behind the Angels.
The key to the AL West race will be pitching—the three contenders have the three best staff ERAs in the league—and that could keep the Royals in the thick of things. "[Kansas City's Bret] Saberhagen may be the best in baseball right now," says Toronto coach John McLaren. As of Sunday, Saberhagen had won nine of his last 11 starts and was 16-5 for the season. Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and amazing rookie Tom Gordon—6-3 since becoming a starter, 16-5 for the season—give the Royals a formidable 1-2-3 starting staff.
Another saving grace for K.C. has been reliever Jeff Montgomery. His ERA from April 14 through Sunday was 1.06, he had succeeded in 13 of his last 14 save opportunities, and he had walked only one batter in more than five weeks. "Now we have to get Bo Jackson [who has been hampered with a twisted knee and pulled quadriceps muscle] completely healthy," says K.C. manager John Wathan. "I want to see him in a pennant race."
Welcome back to Missouri baseball.
NEW SPARK PLUGS
Most of the top young minor league players who could affect the pennant races—e.g., Montreal's Marquis Grissom and Todd Zeile of St. Louis—have already been called up. But with rosters expanding to 40 players on Sept. 1, a number of minor leaguers could still have a significant impact on contending teams:
1) Righthander Curt Schilling, whom Baltimore acquired last season from Boston for pitcher Mike Boddicker, could step in when the O's need a fifth starter. Also, Baltimore's middle relievers have left something to be desired, so adding Jose Bautista and Ben McDonald to the bullpen could help.
2) "Syracuse [Toronto's Triple A club] has more pitching prospects than the rest of the International League combined," says Atlanta scout Paul Ricciarini. Into the Blue Jay bullpen will go prized Syracuse lefthander Bob MacDonald and righthanders Tom Gilles, Alex Sanchez and Willie Blair.
Offensively, the Blue Jays could get added sock against lefthanders from outfielder Glenallen Hill, who at week's end was hitting .318 with 21 homers for Syracuse. "He bails out against righties," says Ricciarini, "but he hits lefties, and he's got awesome power."
But the player arousing the most curiosity is lefthanded-hitting first baseman John Olerud, who was signed by Toronto last Saturday and will be activated on Sept. 1. Olerud was a gamble as a third-round draft choice this spring for two reasons: He had wanted to play his upcoming senior season at Washington State, and in February he underwent surgery for a brain aneurysm. Olerud has been given a clean bill of health, and his performance in the Alaska summer league was so spectacular that one Toronto scout saw him play nine games before seeing him swing and miss.
3) Remember the name Darryl Kile. While Astro pitchers Jim Clancy and Rick Rhoden have failed to replace Nolan Ryan, Kile could use his 94-mph fastball in September to great advantage in the Dome. Kile, who's in his first full pro season, has won a total of 13 games for Double A Columbus (Ga.) and Triple A Tucson.
The Red Sox are worried that their probable 1989 MVP, Nick Esasky, may leave as a free agent when his contract expires at season's end. He has refused to negotiate with Boston, and there is speculation that he will go to Atlanta. Braves general manager Bobby Cox lives near Esasky's home in Marietta, Ga.... One requirement for baseball's approval of Emmis Broadcasting's purchase of the Mariners is that future co-owner Jeff Smulyan move to Seattle. He has assured commissioner Bart Giamatti, Brewers owner Bud Selig and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf that he would. It's too bad the sale didn't happen last year, before the Mariners lost Mark Langston and Mike Moore, but Seattle still has some of the best young talent in the league.... Padres second baseman Roberto Alomar has emerged from manager Jack McKeon's doghouse with some superb play. When Alomar failed to cover first on a sacrifice bunt in a 3-1 loss to the Giants on June 24, McKeon exploded, singling out Alomar and catcher Benito Santiago for lackadaisical play. From that game through San Diego's three-game sweep of the Mets last week, Alomar was batting .310. In the New York series he hit two homers to double his season's total and, in Sunday's 13-7 finale, knocked in a career-high five runs.
GENE SWEENEY JR.
Ripken (left) and Yount carry big sticks to any argument over who will be the American League MVP.
OTTO GREULE JR./ALL SPORT USA
[See caption above.]
Winningham's oversized glove is under scrutiny.
Alomar has shone since receiving a tongue-lashing from his manager.
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A happy 48th to a true rara avis.
BETWEEN THE LINES
TALE OF THE TAPE
For the past seven seasons the Padres' Tony Gwynn and his wife, Alicia, have been videotaping his at bats, and he uses his vast library to scout pitchers as well as to study his own swing. "I'm the real Captain Video," says Gwynn, who has won the league batting title the last two seasons. "After a couple of years, I knew what I was doing, then I started seeing what pitchers were trying to do to me and how they tip pitches." Gwynn even takes a portable VCR with him on the road so that he can scrutinize each at bat in his hotel
THE GOING GOT WEIRD
Sometime around 1 a.m. on Aug. 24, the Dodgers' Rick Dempsey hit a homer in the 22nd inning to give Los Angeles a 1-0 win in Montreal. The Expos had thought they won the game when Larry Walker apparently scored on a sacrifice fly in the 16th. Three umpires had already walked off the field when the Dodgers appealed at third base, claiming that Walker left the bag too soon. Umpire Bob Davidson called Walker out. That wasn't the game's only oddity, either. L.A.'s Eddie Murray hit what would have been a run-scoring shot off the fence in the 21st, but it was ruled that Walker caught the ball. Replays showed that he had trapped the ball against the wall. Finally, the Expos didn't walk a batter the entire game.
When Steve Stone won the Cy Young Award as an Oriole in 1980, fellow Baltimore pitcher Mike Flanagan came up with nicknames for all the club's starters. Flanagan, who won the award the year before, was Cy Young; Stone was Cy Present; Jim Palmer, who won in 1973, '75 and '76, was Cy Old; and Scott McGregor was Cy Future. Storm Davis, who joined the O's in 1982, became known as Cy Clone because his style resembled Palmer's. Two weeks ago Flanagan—who's now with the Blue Jays—slipped in the bathroom of his hotel room and hit his left eye on a doorknob. The eye was swollen shut for about a week, and Flanagan took to calling himself Cy Clops.
HOW 'BOUT 500 K's?
At week's end, Baltimore pitcher Jeff Ballard had only 41 strikeouts in 27 starts this season, and 109 in 66 career starts. "It would take me about 100 years to catch Nolan Ryan," said Ballard after Ryan reached the 5,000-strikeout mark last week. Tim Kurkjian of the Baltimore Sun figured out that Ballard will have to average about 30 starts for the next 100 years to get 5,000 K's.
THE MAGIC GLOVE
Outfielders Herm Winningham of Cincinnati and Brett Butler of San Francisco both use oversized gloves that look like jai alai cestas. Winningham says he has been told that his is illegal, but he uses it anyway. "The umps know about it," says Winningham. "They don't care. Say it's the seventh game of the World Series, the bases are loaded, and you reach over the fence to take a homer away from someone. That's when the opposing manager will come out and say, 'His glove is too big.' But no one's going to do anything until someone says something." For the record, the rules state that a glove must measure no more than 12 inches from top to bottom and no more than 7¾ inches across.
•The A's faced a rare test when they had to play three games in three cities on Aug. 20, 21 and 22. They played in Oakland on Sunday against the Twins, in Detroit on Monday (to make up a July 19 rainout) and in Texas on Tuesday. Oakland won the three games by a combined score of 13-1.
•By Aug. 17 the Blue Jays had sold out every home game for the rest of the season, assuring that they would break the AL home-attendance record of 3.03 million, set last year by Minnesota. So pleased is the Toronto management that it is considering lowering ticket prices for next year. The Jays have already received more than 40,000 applications for 1990 season tickets at the current prices.