The first half of the season made no sense. The Giants won only one more game than the Astros, while the Cardinals were 6½ games ahead of the Cubs. Reds reliever Rob Dibble had more suspensions than blown saves, while Cub outfielder Doug Dascenzo didn't allow a run in three relief appearances. Pirate catcher Mike LaValliere had more triples than Cincinnati's Eric Davis, while Houston's Casey Candaele had as many home runs as the Royals' George Brett.
The Cubs, Expos, Giants and Royals all fell out of pennant contention, and six managers lost their jobs. If the second half proceeds in a more sensible way, three divisions will have two-team races, and the other will be a five-team battle royal. Here's why:
National League East
Pittsburgh looked like a possible runaway winner in June, but now it appears that the Pirates will be tested. They'll still win the division, because they've already survived poor starts from pitcher Doug Drabek (1-6 on May 11, 7-2 thereafter) and outfielder Barry Bonds (he was hitting .187 on May 11, .318 after) and because they almost never beat themselves. At the break they had no one with a .300 average or as many as 12 home runs or 52 RBIs, but they led the division by 2½ games.
The Bucs won't crack under pressure because they're too loose. "While you're out there trying to get a game-winning hit," says Pittsburgh coach Rich Donnelly, "somebody might be in the clubhouse nailing your shoes to your locker. But he's rooting for you while he does it."
The big question mark for the Pirates is third baseman Jeff King, who has played in only 10 games since May 5 because of a back injury. If he can't play in the second half, Pittsburgh will have to trade for a third baseman so that Bobby Bonilla can return to the outfield.
It would be great theater if the Cardinals made a run at the Pirates, but the Mets are the only team equipped to do that. New York finished the first half with seven straight wins, and the Mets always play well right after the break. They open the second half with 11 games at home, one of which might be started by lefthander Sid Fernandez, who has been out since he broke a bone in his left arm in spring training. But New York can't win the division if Dwight Gooden (8-6 with a 4.18 ERA before the break) doesn't return to form.
National League West
When the Dodgers opened a five-game lead on the Reds on July 3, one well-respected Western Division scout said Cincy would still win the division by 10 games. That's ridiculous. However, Cincinnati has begun to look more like a defending-world champion. One reason is shortstop Barry Larkin, who proved with his torrid June (.370 average, nine homers, 23 RBIs, 13 steals) that he may be the best player in the league. Another reason is Dibble, who hasn't blown any of his 23 first-half save opportunities.
The Reds also are hoping for better days from Davis, who had 20 RBIs in 170 at bats in the first half. Davis got off to a slow start last year but hit .347 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs in September and October. And if injured pitchers Jose Rijo, Norm Charlton and Scott Scudder all return to the rotation by the end of July, as hoped, Cincinnati should have enough pitching to overtake L.A.
The Dodgers will take the race to the final week because they have the best pitching in baseball. Los Angeles is counting on Orel Hershiser's right shoulder to hold up and on the solid work of Mike Morgan (9-5 at the break but traditionally a poor finisher) to continue.
L.A. has scored plenty of runs thanks to a terrific opening half by second baseman Juan Samuel (.313) and the addition of leadoff man Brett Butler (.403 on-base percent age). Just think how dangerous the Dodgers could be when Darryl Strawberry (.229 average) gets going and when Eddie Murray (.312 career average in September and October) makes his usual late-season charge.
American League East
With all due respect to the Tigers and Yankees, this will be a two-team race. The Blue Jays were 5½ games ahead of the Red Sox at the break because Toronto's new faces (Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter—the league's first-half MVP—and Devon White) have shone, while Boston's newcomers (Jack Clark, Danny Darwin and Matt Young) have struggled. The Jays' acquisition of pitcher Tom Candiotti (2.23 ERA) from Cleveland on June 27 gives them the best five-man rotation in the league and may have given them the pennant. Candiotti allows Mike Timlin, the top candidate for American League Rookie of the Year, to move back to a loaded bullpen anchored by Tom Henke, who was 16 for 16 in save opportunities.
Opponents must find it discouraging that Toronto has played so well despite getting a combined 16 homers and 45 RBIs from John Olerud and Kelly Gruber, who, with Carter, were supposed to form the heart of the older. It also doesn't help the rest of the division that the Blue Jays won't play another East team after Sept. 8. "But that's a disadvantage for us," says Toronto general manager Pat Gillick. "You want to knock heads with teams you have to beat. And none of those teams in the West will be going through the motions in September. We have to be eight games up by then."
Toronto won't build that kind of lead, even with the Red Sox—who went 24-29 after an 18-9 start—playing as badly as they have. "If we play like ourselves, if we can shake ourselves, we can make a run," says Boston general manager Lou Gorman. "We haven't done that yet."
The man who can do the shaking is Mo Vaughn, the powerful, charismatic rookie first baseman who hit three homers in his first seven games after being called up on June 27. But there's no indication that the pitching Boston got last year will return. Starters other than Roger Clemens had a 4.99 ERA at the break. The worst news for the Red Sox is that after the break, they don't play a team with a losing record until Aug. 5, and they don't play the Blue Jays after Aug. 12.
American League West
"This is going to be the best," says A's pitcher Dave Stewart. The best, most competitive race in the history of this division, that is. The five teams separated by 2½ games at the break—the Twins, Rangers, Angels, A's and White Sox-could still be bunched on Sept. 1.
The Angels' first four starters (Chuck Finley, Mark Langston, Jim Abbott, Kirk McCaskill) are terrific, and California's defense is vastly improved. "Winnie [Dave Winfield] has done it all year; it's time for me to pick it up after the break," says designated hitter Dave Parker, who batted .222 in the first half. The Angels are old, but experienced. If they don't tire in September, and if their experiment with a four-man rotation works, they'll be the team to beat.
It's a miracle that Oakland, with so many injuries and slumps, was only 2½ games out, especially since its ERA of 4.78 at the break was 13th in the American League. Watch for the A's to fly out of the gate in the second half, which they begin with 19 consecutive games against the Orioles, Indians and Yankees. Oakland will get a boost when injured third baseman Carney Lansford returns in late July, but unless the A's can fill the chasm left by the loss of shortstop Walt Weiss (torn ligaments in his left ankle), their vaunted defense will continue to betray them.
The Rangers should stay close because they have the most potent offense in baseball. With their pitching, they'll need it. They've already used 19 different pitchers, including 10 starters—both league highs. Nolan Ryan, Kevin Brown and Bobby Witt (whose right shoulder injury will sideline him until at least Aug. 1) have won only 15 games all told. But also keep in mind that Texas has played less than .500 baseball after the break in 10 of the last 12 seasons.
The Twins have pitching, defense and history on their side. This year they became the 12th American League team ever to win 15 consecutive games. Of the previous 11 teams, nine finished in first place, the others in second. But Minnesota has no chance if Scott Erickson, who gave a Cy Young performance in the first half, stays on the disabled list for very long with a strained right elbow.
The White Sox stayed close despite playing poorly, especially on defense. That they won 20 games in their final at bat shows their spunk. Chicago needs to acquire a big-hitting DH, or its shortage of firepower will spell doom. That's where the Sox's wild card might come into play. One American League West manager says he fears the return of Bo Jackson, because "[just] his presence will affect teams." Bo may be back in September.
ONCE AROUND THE FOUR DIVISION RACES (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT): LOOK FOR LARKIN WINFIELD, HENKE AND DRABEK TO HELP PUT THEIR TEAMS ON TOP AT THE FINISH
DAVID LIAM KYLE
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