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Inside Baseball

Houston's Lone Star
Even during the Astros' miss of a season, Jeff Bagwell has been a
tremendous hit

Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell knows how it must have felt to
be one of the musicians playing as the Titanic went down. It's
tough to get excited about a virtuoso performance when your stage
is as good as sunk. "Absolutely not," was Bagwell's answer last
Friday when asked if he finds any satisfaction in his gaudy
offensive numbers this season. "We're paid to win baseball games,
and we didn't win enough to come close to the playoffs. As I look
at it right now, there are 29 games left in a miserable season."

Lost in the wreckage of Houston's season--through Sunday the
Astros had the majors' third-worst record (57-79) and were 21
games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central--has
been a performance by Bagwell that were it not for Houston's free
fall, would have MVP written all over it. He was first in the
league in runs (126), second in walks (93), tied for second in
home runs (40), fifth in RBIs (109) and sixth in on-base
percentage (.430). Bagwell also had become only the eighth major
leaguer to have five consecutive 30-homer, 100-RBI, 100-run
seasons, and just the fifth to reach 300 homers, 1,000 RBIs and
1,000 runs in his first 10 years (after Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio,
Frank Robinson and Ted Williams).

Bagwell's monster August--he hit .380, smashed 12 homers, scored
31 runs and set a club record for RBIs in a month with 34--and an
uptick in the play of the Astros, who went 16-12 in August, are
two of the few silver linings in a cloudy season. Outfielder
Moises Alou has returned after a year lost to injury and hit
.367, righthander Scott Elarton (15-5) and outfielder Richard
Hidalgo (33 home runs) have blossomed after promising sophomore
seasons in 1999, second-year outfielder Lance Berkman had 17
homers, and first-year infielders Chris Truby (third base) and
Julio Lugo (shortstop and second base) have been solid in
every-day roles in the second half. "We went to Plan B for the
season," says manager Larry Dierker. "We've played a lot of young
guys and maybe accelerated their progress."

The youth movement, necessitated by injuries to veteran third
baseman Ken Caminiti and second baseman Craig Biggio, and the
off-season departures of outfielder Carl Everett and lefthander
Mike Hampton, are also frustrating for Bagwell--and that
frustration has begun to color his thinking about his future.
"We've got every prospect we have up here, so I guess that's a
positive," he says. "I want to see us get in the right direction
to win."

Thus will Bagwell, whose contract expires after the 2001 season,
pay close attention to the Astros' off-season attempts to clean
up this year's mess. He hints that though he wants to stay in
Houston, he won't blindly sign an extension this winter. General
manager Gerry Hunsicker says signing Bagwell will be on the
"front burner" in the off-season. "I can think of no better way
to show our fans and our other players the direction we're
heading than by signing our franchise player," he says.

"I know my fate will be decided this off-season," says Bagwell,
"but I need to see management do some things and commit this team
to winning. It won't be me signing first."

Waiting for McGwire
Cards Hungry For Big Mac

It was a good news-bad news weekend for the Cardinals. The good:
They swept the Mets at Busch Stadium--winning all three games with
last-inning heroics--and Mark McGwire announced that he would
probably be ready for pinch-hitting duty by the end of this week.
The bad: It appeared that McGwire, who has been out of the lineup
since July 7 with severe patella tendinitis in his right knee,
was still weeks from doing anything else. "At the plate I'm
fine," said McGwire, who as of Sunday was able to jog lightly and
take batting practice but not do infield drills, "but on defense
I still have that tight pulling and tearing feeling."

That St. Louis still led the National League Central by nine
games through Sunday belied how much it needed McGwire back in
the lineup. After winning 50 of their first 84 games, the
Cardinals were only four games over .500 in 52 games without Big
Mac. Reason No. 1? An offense that--with the exception of red-hot
Will Clark, who was acquired from the Orioles at the trading
deadline and had hit .381 with eight home runs since coming to
St. Louis--wasn't as formidable as it had been earlier in the
season. Before McGwire got hurt, St. Louis averaged 5.9 runs per
game; in 52 McGwireless games the rate dropped to 4.8.

No one would welcome McGwire's return more than centerfielder Jim
Edmonds, who was mostly batting third ahead of McGwire. When
McGwire went down, Edmonds was hitting .342, with an on-base
percentage of .455 and a slugging percentage of .658. Since Big
Mac went on the disabled list Edmonds was more than 100 points
lower in each of those categories, having hit .238, slugged .508
and reached base at a .340 clip. He recaptured a bit of his clout
last weekend, hitting two walk-off home runs against the Mets.
"Whether they're pitching me differently or not," says Edmonds,
"I still have to do what I was doing."

On Deck
Afraid of Philly?
Sept. 8-10, Phillies at Mets

Later this month the Mets will try to slay their biggest
nemesis, the Braves; they can warm up this weekend against a
smaller dragon. Philadelphia almost dashed New York's hopes for
a postseason berth last year with a September sweep of the Mets
at Veterans Stadium. This season the hapless Phillies have won
four of six against the Mets. One positive sign for New York: In
their careers lefties Mike Hampton, Glendon Rusch and Al Leiter,
scheduled to start the three games, are a combined 10-6 against

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE On another team, Bagwell, with 40 homers and 126 runs as of Sunday, might be eyeing the MVP award.

Bags in Kiner's Korner?

Through Sunday, Jeff Bagwell was on pace for 48 home runs, the
Astros for 94 losses. Rarely has a batter done so much for a
team that's done so little. Only four times has a player hit at
least 45 homers for a team that lost 90 games.

Player, Team HRs Losses

Sammy Sosa, 1999 Cubs 63 95
Harmon Killebrew, 1961 Twins 46 90
Ralph Kiner, 1950 Pirates 47 96
Ralph Kiner, 1947 Pirates 51 92

the HOT corner

Mark Grace, whose contract expires after this season, is chafing
at the Cubs' reluctance to sign him to an extension. Chicago is
weighing whether Korean prospect Hee Seop Choi, 21, who through
Saturday had batted .313 with 10 homers and 24 RBIs in 34 Double
A games, is ready to replace the 36-year-old Grace (.286, 11
home runs, 71 RBIs) at first base. "We're going to have to play
out the season...and find out if Andy [Cubs president and CEO
MacPhail] wants Hee Seop Choi hitting behind Sammy [Sosa] next
year," said Grace last week. "Good luck. Sammy will get walked
300 times."...

While teams like the Indians and the Red Sox face grueling
Septembers, the A's, who at week's end were 23-26 since the
All-Star break, can take heart in having survived their most
difficult stretch. After playing only one team with a losing
record in the second half, Oakland on Sept. 8 begins a stretch
of 13 games against the Devil Rays, Twins and Orioles, against
whom the A's are a combined 13-8....

Only one team, the 1997 Rockies, has finished at .500 or better
without a 10-game winner. The Angels, 68-68 after Sunday's 13-12
loss to the White Sox, might become the second. The Anaheim
pitcher with the most victories was closer Shigetoshi Hasegawa
with eight; none of the starters had more than six....

Chuck Finley's seven-inning, 89-pitch stint in a win over
Baltimore last Friday was a sign that the Indians' 37-year-old
lefthander hasn't hit the wall. Finley had pitched more than six
innings only once in his previous eight starts and had averaged
101 pitches per outing. In that span he was 2-4 with a 6.54 ERA.