THE RACE IS ON
Can Bobby Valentine's Mets finally dethrone the Braves and give
him his first division title?
In more serene moments, when he isn't ranting about the lack of
credit he and his Mets receive from the New York media, Bobby
Valentine has been known to admit that he has accomplished
little as a manager. After all, in eight years with the Rangers,
Valentine never wound up higher than second; in two minor league
seasons his team placed fourth and second; in one season in
Japan he finished second; and in the past two seasons with the
Mets he has come in third and second. "The truth is, you can't
talk until you have results," says Valentine, loquacious leader
of baseball's winningest club (36-15) from June 6 through
Sunday. "Not as a team, not as a manager."
Valentine, who has been characterized by detractors inside and
outside the Mets' organization as an egoistical (true),
trash-talking (true), overrated (debatable) hype machine, now is
in position to get results. New York, which briefly took a
half-game lead over the Braves atop the National League East
last Friday before falling a half-game off the pace again, has
proved itself capable of taking a run at ending Atlanta's
domination of the division in the last four years.
The Mets' .987 fielding percentage was the best in baseball (THE
STANDINGS, page 64) at week's end. Their .277 average (fourth in
the league), 531 RBIs (fifth), 473 walks (first), .362 on-base
percentage (first) and 105 stolen bases (third) make their
attack diverse and dangerous. New York has both power, from
Ventura (22 homers and 84 RBIs) and catcher Mike Piazza (21 and
68) and speed, from outfielders Roger Cedeno (a
major-league-leading 52 stolen bases) and Rickey Henderson (28
But for the Mets to knock off the Braves or at least reach the
postseason as the National League wild card, Valentine must
successfully deploy a pitching staff that has seven starters
(including injured former All-Star Bobby Jones, who's due back
by the end of the month), most of whom are rather
undistinguished. New York's present six-man rotation has
lefthanders Al Leiter, the staff ace, and Kenny Rogers, and
righthanders Octavio Dotel, Orel Hershiser, Rick Reed and Masato
Yoshii. Valentine used six starters for much of the stretch run
last season, when the Mets fell out of the wild-card race by
losing their last five games and he doesn't relish the idea of
doing so again.
Valentine says one fixture in the rotation will be Dotel, a
quiet 23-year-old rookie who evokes comparisons to a young Pedro
Martinez. On most teams a phenom of Dotel's ability would have
been on the Opening Day roster. But Valentine
uncharacteristically urged patience. When Dotel finally got his
first start in New York on June 26, he was ready to pitch in the
majors. Despite having been rocked for nine runs in two innings
against the Cubs last Saturday, Dotel was 3-1 after six starts.
"He's got a chance to be something special," says Valentine.
"He's competitive, he's fearless, and he's got a
Despite all his starters, Valentine's bullpen was exhausted as
Saturday's trading deadline approached, largely because the Mets
had gone a league-record 106 games without a complete game.
Weary relievers Turk Wendell, Armando Benitez and Dennis Cook
ranked first, second and third, respectively, in the league in
appearances. The acquisition on Saturday of lefthander Chuck
McElroy from the Rockies and righthander Billy Taylor from the
A's should reinvigorate the bullpen for the stretch run. That
was evident on Sunday as McElroy and Taylor gave the Mets two
scoreless innings of relief in a dramatic 13-inning, 5-4 win in
None of this is likely to mellow Valentine, though. On Saturday,
surrounded by a throng of reporters, he celebrated his first day
as a first-place New York manager by again blasting his critics.
"No matter what I do, I can't get respect," he said. "Everyone
was calling for my head a month ago. Where are they now that
Of course, Valentine knows that should his team miss the
playoffs yet again, they'll be back.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Mets followers had to be thrilled with the moves general manager
Steve Phillips made to upgrade New York's bullpen and
outfield--in addition to pitchers Chuck McElroy and Billy Taylor
he also acquired centerfielder Darryl Hamilton and his .303
average from Colorado--but for the most part they're alone among
fans who were counting on 11th-hour moves to bolster their teams
for the stretch run. Most clubs that needed help, usually
pitching, weren't able to get it, and this year's trading
deadline will be remembered more for the transactions that
didn't happen than for the ones that did. Nine deals were
struck, and 27 players changed uniforms in the hours preceding
the midnight deadline, but none of the transactions included
such seemingly certain-to-be-dealt players as Angels lefty Chuck
Finley, Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros or Yankees lefty Andy
Pettitte. Most surprising were the teams who had obvious needs
and money to spend but failed to pull the trigger:
--Indians. Their deal for Finley fell apart by 4:30 p.m. on
Saturday, when Cleveland general manager John Hart refused to
meet Anaheim's asking price of infielder Enrique Wilson and
three minor leaguers, including two of Cleveland's top pitching
prospects, starter Willie Martinez and reliever David Riske,
both righthanders. The Indians, who have gone 7-10 since the
All-Star break, lack a lefthander in their rotation--a
shortcoming that is particularly ominous for the postseason,
especially if the Tribe meets up with the Yankees. Cleveland
desperately needed Finley and his proven record as a Yankee
killer (16-9 lifetime mark).
--Braves. Atlanta did grab catcher Greg Myers from the Padres
five days before the deadline to sub for Javy Lopez, who
reinjured his right knee on July 24 and is out for the year, and
got the Cubs' Jose Hernandez (.272, 15 homers) at the deadline
to add some pop and middle-infield depth. But the Braves still
lack a leadoff hitter: Manager Bobby Cox has taken a serious
look at four players in that spot, and through Sunday Atlanta's
leadoff hitters had combined for a .235 average and a .310
on-base percentage. As for Atlanta's pitching woes, lefthander
Terry Mulholland, acquired from the Cubs, will be hard-pressed
to make up for the loss of southpaw Odalis Perez (torn ligament
in his left elbow; out for the year), nor will he be sufficient
if righthander John Smoltz should go on the disabled list for
the third time this season with a sore elbow.
--Rangers. For the first time in his five years with Texas,
general manager Doug Melvin failed to make a deal in July--an
unfortunate turn of events, because, with an American
League-worst 5.92 starters' ERA, the Rangers desperately needed
to upgrade their pitching. Melvin chased Finley, Angels
righthander Omar Olivares and Cardinals lefty Darren Oliver, but
was unwilling to part with any top prospects or members of his
bullpen, which is second in the league in ERA (3.80). Melvin may
end up wishing he had if his shaky rotation blows up in October.
STAYING IN THE WILD-CARD HUNT
The Athletics showed their first signs of life since the early
1990s by landing righthander Kevin Appier (9-9 with a 4.87 ERA
and a $4.8 million salary this year) from the Royals for three
young pitchers. That deal wrapped up a pitching overhaul by
general manager Billy Beane, who also sent Billy Taylor to the
Mets for righthanders Jason Isringhausen and Greg McMichael.
Earlier in the week Beane had plucked Omar Olivares from the
Angels and two weeks ago he unloaded disgruntled lefthander
Kenny Rogers on the Mets. Two years ago "we lost 97 games, and
last year was about trying to be competitive," said Beane, who
also picked up infielder Randy Velarde in the Olivares deal.
"It's important for the club to experience this."
Beane's maneuverings mean that Oakland, which already had the
American League's third-best starters' ERA (4.70), will attack
their 3 1/2-game deficit in the wild-card race with an
impressive rotation of Appier, Olivares, standout rookie Tim
Hudson and righties Jimmy Haynes and Gil Heredia. However, the
loss of Taylor, who had blown three of his last six save
opportunities but still ranked fourth in the league with 26,
means 42-year-old Doug Jones (5 for 9 in save chances through
Sunday) will be counted on to close. "We lost a guy who saved 26
games, so there's no question we took a hit," said Beane. "But
you can't make a perfect club with 22 million bucks."
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN With the 40-year-old Henderson on a tear, the Mets can beat teams with speed or power.
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Olivares picked up a win in his first A's outing.
the HOT corner
If Angels General Manager Bill Bavasi is convinced that Eric
Young's injured left ankle is healed, the Dodgers' disgruntled
second baseman and base stealer could join Anaheim after he
comes off the DL, which might be as early as this week. Los
Angeles, itching to deal Young and his large contract ($9
million over the next two years), would gladly take a prospect
or two in return....
Following the trade of teammate David Segui to the Blue Jays on
July 28, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners spent 45 minutes behind
closed doors in manager Lou Piniella's office. Griffey, angry
about the deal, refused to speak with reporters about it....
From July 6, when Astros second baseman Craig Biggio learned
that the Diamondbacks' Jay Bell would be the National League's
starter at his position in the All-Star Game, through Sunday,
Biggio batted .443, hitting safely in 22 of 24 games....
Tae-Bo may be the fitness craze of the year, but Aaron Boone
isn't so high on it. The Reds' third baseman bought one of the
Billy Blanks tapes during the off-season and tried it at home,
only to injure his right hip attempting to do a leg kick. The
hip has bothered him on occasion all season....
Diamondbacks first baseman Travis Lee, who tied for the team
lead in home runs with 22 as a rookie last season, is in danger
of losing his job to Erubiel Durazo, who had hit .385 in 13 at
bats since being called up from Triple A Tucson on July 25. Lee
was hitting .239 with nine homers and 48 RBIs at week's end.
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.
Have defenses gotten better than ever in recent years, or are
official scorers more inclined to credit hits on plays that are
really errors? The question arises because, through Sunday, the
Mets had given up only 14 unearned runs this year and were on
pace to shatter their own league record of a year ago for fewest
unearned runs in a 162-game season. They could also break the
major league record set by the Orioles back in...1998. In fact,
seven of the 10 lowest unearned run totals have come in the last
10 seasons. Kind of makes you wonder if part of the reason for
all those pitchers with high ERAs is the official scoring. Here
are the alltime lowest unearned run totals for a 162-game season
and how those teams ended up.
TEAM YEAR UNEARNED RUNS W-L FINISH
1. Orioles 1998 31 79-83 4th
2. Mets 1998 36 88-74 2nd
3. Yankees 1998 37 114-48 1st*
4. Orioles 1982 39 94-68 2nd
T5. Reds 1975 40 108-54 1st*
T5. Orioles 1992 40 89-73 3rd
T5. Pirates 1993 40 75-87 5th
8. Blue Jays 1990 41 86-76 2nd
T9. Orioles 1975 42 90-69 2nd
T9. Orioles 1989 42 87-75 2nd
*World Series winner SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
in the BOX
Aug. 1, 1999
Dodgers 4, Diamondbacks 2
Going 2 for 4 with two singles and no RBIs shouldn't be
considered a big deal for a hitter of Raul Mondesi's caliber,
but, hey, it had been a trying few days for L.A.'s rightfielder.
Manager Davey Johnson didn't start him last Saturday because
Mondesi was "upset" that his name had surfaced in trade rumors.
Mondesi, who will make $8.5 million this year but had only four
homers in his last 55 games and had seen his average plummet to
.245, then learned that he had been ripped by former L.A.
manager Tommy Lasorda. "When was the last time you saw Mondy get
a base hit to rightfield?" Lasorda asked in the Los Angeles Times.
Mondesi responded by stroking both hits to the right side on
Sunday and showed a modicum of maturity after the game. "I don't
have anything to say about Lasorda or anything else," he said.