NO SHORTAGE OF HITTERS
Since divisional play began, in 1969, only six different National League shortstops have batted .300 in a season in which they played 100 or more games at the position, and no two National League shortstops have hit .300 in the same year. So what's going on here? At the All-Star break, five National League shortstops were batting at least .300: the Cubs" Rey Sanchez, .324; the Reds' Barry Larkin, .319; the Astros' Andujar Cedeno, .319; the Braves' Jeff Blauser, .311; and the Giants' Royce Clayton, .301. And the Pirates' Jay Bell, at .298, and the Rockies' Vinny Castilla, at .297, were just off the mark.
In fact, all the National League shortstops combined were hitting .280 this season, the highest average of any position in the league other than first base. "This year has been incredible," says Blauser, who, along with Larkin and Bell, was selected for the All-Star Game. "I think guys like Alan Trammell in Detroit and Cal Ripken in Baltimore changed the idea of how shortstops are supposed to hit."
Larkin, who batted above .300 each of the last four years, has helped too. He has a chance this season to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases for the second time in his career—a feat accomplished by only one other shortstop, Trammell.
"Better athletes are playing up the middle now," says Larkin. "There have always been good athletes playing shortstop, but now they're bigger and stronger. It always used to be the shortstop hit eighth or ninth, but now some hit third."
Larkin hits in that spot regularly, and Blauser bats third on occasion too. In the last two years they also became the third and fourth shortstops ever to hit three home runs in a game. Heck, three home runs used to be the total for many shortstops in a season. Not anymore.
Blauser supplanted Rafael Belliard as Atlanta's shortstop last season: Belliard had just 30 extra-base hits from 1988 through the '93 All-Star break, but Blauser had 23 extra-base hits the first half of this season alone. Clayton replaced Jose Uribe last year in San Francisco: Uribe didn't drive in more than 43 runs in any of his six years as the Giants' regular shortstop, but Clayton had 47 RBIs at the break this year.
In 1992 National League shortstops averaged .250 with six homers and 46 RBIs. At the break only the shortstops of the Mets (.245) and the Padres (.244) were batting under .250, and three teams already had more than 46 RBIs from their shortstops—the Phillies (50), the Reds (50) and the Giants (47).
"A lot of these guys are young, too," says Bell, referring to Sanchez, who's 25; Clayton, 23; and Cedeno, 23. Bell also calls Expo rookie shortstop Wil Cordero "the next Barry Larkin" because of his offensive potential. "Part of the reason the shortstops are having such success is that pitchers don't know them," Bell says. "But [even if the pitchers get wise to them] it won't take long for these shortstops to turn it back around."
TAKING A MULLIGAN
In major league history there had never been 10 teams bunched within three games of first place at the All-Star break (or later) until it happened this year in the American League, which had five teams crowded at the top of each division. What better excuse is there for me to throw out my preseason American League predictions and take another crack at them? It's a chance to be wrong twice.
•American League East. In spring training I picked the Orioles, and I'm staying with them. As of Sunday they were 50-42 and a half game out of first place, a whopping turnaround for a team that was 21-30 on June 1. Surely Baltimore won't get the same solid pitching from Fernando Valenzuela and Jamie Mover in the second half of the season as it did in the first, but the Birds are starting to hit, and their bullpen is superb.
At week's end the Blue Jays had lost 12 of their last 15 games and had turned a three-game lead on June 29 into a first-place tie with the Yankees. Toronto's pitching has improved, but the Blue Jays need to acquire another starter (Expo Dennis Martinez?) for the stretch drive.
The Yankees were in first place after the All-Star break for the first time since July 27, 1988. "We think it's ours to win or lose," says Steve Howe, a member of the overworked New York bullpen, which had been largely responsible for losing seven games in which the Yanks led by three or more runs. A trade for a high-quality starter, like the Reds' Tim Belcher, would make them the favorite.
In Detroit's first game after the All-Star break, Tiger manager Sparky Anderson tried to shake his team out of a dreadful slide by starting Kirk Gibson in centerfield for the first time in three years and having third baseman Alan Trammell and shortstop Travis Fryman switch positions—Fryman's first start at third in 14 months. But change needs to come on the mound. In losing 17 of 24 games through Sunday, Detroit allowed 171 runs.
In spring training I thought Boston's Butch Hobson would be the first manager fired. Last Friday he received a contract extension. The Red Sox were two games out at week's end, and their pitching was the best in the division. In 19 games without ace Roger Clemens, who was nursing a strained groin, the starting rotation put together an 11-1 record and a 3.19 ERA. Last Friday, Clemens returned from the disabled list and won. Boston has tried to deal pitcher Frank Viola to get more offense, but there has been little interest. The Red Sox need more hitting and better fielding to win the division.
•American League West. I originally picked Minnesota to finish first and Oakland second, and that's not looking real good right now. Brutal pitching ran both teams out of the race. As of Sunday the Twins had allowed 10 or more runs 14 times this season, and the A's rotation had a combined 5.43 ERA. So I'll go with my third choice, the White Sox.
Chicago has the best talent in the division, but the White Sox couldn't pull away in the first half because they didn't play up to their ability and the team chemistry wasn't right. But after the All-Star break, they swept four games with the Brewers and opened a three-game lead as of Sunday. Chicago was hotly pursuing Belcher, who would cost the White Sox a young pitcher but might mean a division title.
At week's end the Rangers had won 15 of 20 games and averaged 6.7 runs a game since Jose Canseco was lost for the year after undergoing elbow surgery. But Texas's starting pitching may not be good enough to win the division unless the Rangers win the auction for Belcher. Last Saturday, Texas traded two of the best young arms in its system, Robb Nen and Kurt Miller, to the Marlins for Cris Carpenter, who will be a setup man for closer Tom Henke. Overpaying like that shows the team's commitment to winning now.
According to Royal manager Hal McRae, "We haven't played well all year, and we're still in it." Well, every team in the division can say that. As with Texas, Kansas City's only chance of winning would come with the acquisition of a good starter like Martinez. Otherwise look for Seattle, with its standout rotation, to hang with the White Sox the longest.
JUST IN CASE
The Giants have owned a comfortable lead of five or more games in the National League West since June 11, and with an eight-game cushion at week's end they've shown no signs of going into a tailspin. However, should San Francisco falter, the second-place Braves gave themselves a chance to catch up by acquiring first baseman Fred McGriff from the Padres on Sunday.
With a talent-laden farm system, Atlanta was able to deal three minor leaguers—outfielders Melvin Nieves and Vince Moore, and pitcher Donnie Elliott—without giving up any of its top three prospects. In return the Braves got the most consistent home run hitter in the major leagues in the last five years.
Through Sunday, Atlanta first basemen, primarily Sid Bream and Brian Hunter, had combined to hit only .233 and drive in 33 runs this season, well below the National League averages of .288 and 52, respectively, for the position. On the other hand, with 18 home runs, McGriff was on pace to become the 12th player in history to hit 30 or more homers six years in a row. San Diego has now traded the reigning National League batting champ (Gary Sheffield, to the Marlins) and home run champ (McGriff) in the same year.
PLAYING TO THE CROWD
The one obvious downside to the 1993 All-Star Game at Camden Yards was the merciless booing directed at Toronto manager Cito Gaston and his players by the partisan crowd in Baltimore. During pregame introductions Oriole fans voiced their displeasure with the fact that seven Toronto players were on the American League roster, including four of the first five hitters in the lineup. Then the crowd reacted angrily when Gaston didn't bring on Baltimore ace Mike Mussina—one of only two Orioles on the American League squad—to pitch the ninth inning of a 9-3 victory.
A wonderful celebration of baseball, a ballpark and a city shouldn't end with thunderous boos, but the fans did have a point. It's time for some changes in All-Star Game procedures:
•Leave the manager out of the player-selection process. The fans' vote determines the starling lineup, and most All-Star managers hate having to pick the pitchers and reserves. Too often a manager's selections create ill feelings among teams and players who believe they have received short shrift, and the last players a manager wants to alienate are his own. Let the league presidents, who already have input in the process, take full responsibility for filling out the teams' rosters.
•Limit to five the number of players representing any one team. With 14 teams in each league now, and still only 28 roster spots for each league, there's no reason why one team's players should eat up a quarter of a roster.
•Let the managers with the leagues' best records on July 4 work the All-Star Game. After all, the game is supposed to bring together the best performers of the first half of the season.
•Do everything possible to play everyone on the roster, especially the players from the host city. The Astros had only one player at last week's game, pitcher Darryl Kile, and he didn't make an appearance. If the game goes to extra innings and a team has used up all its players, so what? Allow free substitution for both teams at that point. After all, it's an exhibition game, remember?
Now, whenever American League East rival Toronto comes to Baltimore, many Oriole fans will unload on Gaston, an honest and honorable man—but a stubborn one too.
Even though Gaston told Mussina before the game that he wouldn't pitch unless the game went into extra innings, Gaston still should have played to the hometown crowd and sent Mussina in to mop up.
One of the most underrated players in baseball this season has been Darren Lewis of the Giants. Through Sunday he was hitting .269 when he was batting in the leadoff spot, had 31 stolen bases and was playing a terrific centerfield. Last Friday he broke Don Demeter's major league record for most consecutive games (266) played by an outfielder without committing an error....
Brave manager Bobby Cox on Giant leftfielder Barry Bonds, whom he managed in the All-Star Game the last two years: "He might be the most observant hitter I've ever seen. He's on the bench, always talking about the hitters. He does everything."...
If Bonds, who at week's end was fifth in the National League in hitting (.343) and first in home runs (26) and RBIs (74), is voted the league's MVP, he will become the first man in history to win three MVP awards in a four-year span....
The Twins moved centerfielder Kirby Puckett to rightfield and put Shane Mack in center to start the second half of the season because Mack has more range. Puckett is still an above-average centerfielder, but he plays so deep that a number of balls have fallen in front of him this year. He doesn't have the speed to run them down....
Can anyone outside Cleveland name the Indians' five-man starting rotation? It's Jose Mesa, Tom Kramer, Paul Abbott, Jeff Mutis and Albie Lopez....
The Royals' David Cone, the major league strikeout leader each of the last three years, had not struck out 10 batters in a game this season as of Sunday. It's another sign that Cone (6-8) doesn't have the dominating stuff he had in recent years....
A teammate, on White Sox starter Jack McDowell, who at week's end led the majors with 14 wins: "He has the fourth-best stuff on our starting staff, but he has biggest heart I've ever seen."
Minor League Note of the Week. Lefthander Glenn Dishman of Class A Spokane, the Padres' Northwest League affiliate, pitched a no-hitter against Yakima last Saturday. He had a perfect game with two outs in the ninth, but first baseman Jason Thompson mishandled a throw from the second baseman for an error. Dishman, an undrafted free agent out of TCU, retired the next hitter. After the victory he was 4-1 with a 0.40 ERA.
MICHAEL PONZINI/FOCUS ON SPORTS
National League shortstops, like Cedeno (left) and Blauser, have gone on the offensive.
RONALD C. MODRA
[See caption above.]
The boo birds were out in Baltimore to greet Gaston (left) and his large covey of Blue Jays.
BETWEEN THE LINES
From Out of Leftfield.
Mariner pitcher Jeff Nelson played leftfield for one out in Seattle's 3-2 win over Boston last Thursday. "The first thing I did was go over and tell Junior [centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr.] that if the ball goes in the gap, make sure he yells, because I didn't want to run into him—I might kill him," says Nelson, who stands 6'8" and weighs 235 pounds. "He just looked at me and said, 'I can't believe we've got a pitcher in leftfield.' " Seattle manager Lou Piniella wanted to keep the righthanded Nelson in the game, but he also wanted lefthanded reliever Dennis Powell to face lefthanded hitter Mike Greenwell with two out in the eighth. Greenwell popped out to end the inning, and Nelson returned to the mound to start the ninth.
All Together Now.
How much has the Phillies' starting pitching deteriorated in the last four weeks? Not once in the last 15 seasons had a Philadelphia pitcher allowed as many as 11 runs in a game until two (Curt Schilling and Danny Jackson) did it this month. On July 9 Ben Rivera almost did it too, giving up nine runs before being relieved.
Born to Be Wild.
Pirate outfielder Andy Van Slyke on New York Knick center Patrick Ewing, who competed in the celebrity home-run-hitting contest the day before the All-Star Game: "He's seven feet tall, his strike zone is six feet, and [Phillie reliever] Mitch Williams would still walk him."
By the Numbers.
Last Thursday, Ranger first baseman Rafael Palmeiro (left) hit two doubles and two homers against the Tigers to become the first American League player to get four extra-base hits in a game since Robin Ventura of the White Sox did it on July 19, 1991....
Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly tripled last Saturday for his first three-base hit since Aug. 11, 1989. Between triples Mattingly had 116 doubles. Lance Johnson of the White Sox had 46 triples over the same period.