Anything can happen in AL's wild, wild West

BASEBALL

July 14, 1991|By PETER SCHMUCK

The plot has thickened in the wild, wild American League West, where no fewer than five teams are fighting for the rail as the 1991 season passes the halfway mark.

The other division races appear to be shaking themselves out. The Toronto Blue Jays are threatening to make short work of the AL East; the Los Angeles Dodgers are in control in the NL West; and the NL East has become a two-team race. But in the West, only 2 1/2 games separated first place and fifth at the All-Star break. Even the sixth-place Seattle Mariners and the last-place Kansas City Royals are too close for any kind of comfort.

This cannot be good news for the three-time defending champion Oakland Athletics, who have overcome a series of injuries to remain near the top of the standings. They have been challenged before -- by the Kansas City Royals and California Angels in 1989 and the Chicago White Sox in 1990 -- but never has baseball's only divisional dynasty been under siege from so many directions.

And never have they had to take on so many with so little pitching.

"People look at our pitching and say, 'It's going to be hard for them to win the division,' " manager Tony La Russa said recently, "and they're right."

The A's, however, are getting healthier by the day. Pitching ace Dave Stewart appears to be back on top of his game, third baseman Carney Lansford will be back soon, and the schedule over the next three weeks appears to be favorable.

The Minnesota Twins entered the weekend in first place, but their winningest pitcher (Scott Erickson) is on the disabled list and starter Jack Morris took a line drive off his foot during the All-Star Game. Without one or both, they will have a tough time staying competitive.

The Texas Rangers appear to have a solid offensive team, but they lack experience in some key areas and should begin to slip any day now. Don't forget you read it here first.

Perhaps the most dangerous team in the division is the Angels, who have four strong starters and a solid bullpen to go with an offensive lineup that is packed with proven winners. But after spending their first day in first place on July 3, they lapsed into a five-game losing streak -- their longest of the season.

There are some similarities between this season and a 1989 campaign in which the A's were left vulnerable by a string of injuries, but held off the Royals and Angels and went on to win the World Championship.

They are hanging tough again and they are beginning to heal, which cannot be good news to the rest of the division.

*

Commissioner Fay Vincent continues to voice concern over the length of games, but he said during his All-Star visit to Toronto that a clear-cut solution is not at hand.

"It's a concern for a lot of players and managers, too," he said. "Andy Van Slyke made a suggestion that the catcher should be allowed to go to the mound only once in an inning. But when I asked him, 'How many times should a batter be allowed to step out of the box?' he didn't have an answer.

"It's a problem. At 10 o'clock in a lot of cities, people start leaving. But we don't want to make any Draconian moves. Baseball is a great game without a clock."

The New York Mets finally are making a push in the National League East, thanks largely to a starting rotation that has dominated opposing hitters over the past two weeks. Going into Friday night's game, Mets starters had given up just nine earned runs in 63 innings, which works out to a 1.29 ERA. Best of all, they are doing it without a single former Oriole on the staff.

*

If you need any more evidence that pitching is everything, consider the streaking Toronto Blue Jays, who entered the weekend with 16 victories in their last 19 games and seemed poised to blow away the rest of the American League East.

The Blue Jays' staff allowed more than three runs in only two of those 19 games.

*

Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens is impressed with the way the Blue Jays have taken control of the division.

"They're in that mode where they can be down a couple of runs and it's easy for them to come back," he said. "They don't panic when they haven't scored by the second, third or fourth inning.

"We're to the point where we don't sit and think about us. We think about the Blue Jays."

*

Twins utility man Al Newman and Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Jim Gantner are neck-and-neck in baseball's no-home

run derby. Newman opened the second half with a string of 1,603 at-bats since his last and only major-league home run, which he hit in 1986. Gantner is closing in at 1,599 at-bats since he last homered on June 14, 1987, his streak more curious since he has hit 41 homers in his major-league career.

"I don't have any idea why I haven't hit a home run," Gantner said. "I hit them in batting practice all the time. I guess I've been wasting them all in BP."

*

Cleveland Indians pitcher Rod Nichols entered the weekend still looking for his first victory in nearly two years and still hoping that the club will provide enough offensive support for him to get it.

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