The Pittsburgh Pirates will get no sympathy from the rest of the National League East, but they are in danger of ending the month of May in second place.
Why is this so significant?
Because the Bucs have closed out each of the previous 13 months of regular-season play at the top of the standings, a streak that hasn't been matched since the New York Yankees finished 18 consecutive months in first place from 1926 to 1928.
The Pirates aren't in the same class as the Murderers' Row Yanks, of course. It's probably a little easier to finish on top of a six-team division than an eight-team league. But in this age of baseball parity -- with superstars hopping from team to team every year and few of them hopping toward Pittsburgh -- the 13-month streak is an achievement of considerable note.
It would not even be in question if the Pirates hadn't lapsed into a 1-11 slump. They recently returned home from a 1-8 road trip that was the worst of its length in the history of the franchise.
Pitching has been a problem. The club went nearly three weeks without a victory from a starting pitcher, that streak ending Friday night when Vicente Palacios got the decision in a 13-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants. Pitching ace Doug Drabek went into last night without a victory since April 22.
"You're not going to win many games when you give up six, seven, eight runs a game," Pirates manager Jim Leyland said. "If you do that, you're going to get your butt beat all year."
Johnson strikes back: Seattle Mariners pitcher Randy Johnson, who removed himself from Tuesday night's game against the Orioles after two innings, did not take kindly to post-game criticism by manager Bill Plummer.
"He can criticize my performance, but he doesn't have the right to call me a quitter," Johnson said. "I'm going to handle this as professionally as I can, which is more than Plummer did."
Johnson, who was pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career, insisted he left the game because he was "wiped out." He had thrown a lot of pitches in his previous three starts TTC and was not happy to come back on short rest.
After the game, Plummer held up the example of Orioles starter Rick Sutcliffe, who came back on two days' rest to throw 114 pitches and get the victory.
He who laughs last department: The jury is still out on Chicago White Sox right-hander Kirk McCaskill, but Orioles types gloating over the club's decision to shy away from McCaskill last winter might be a little premature. True, he went 10-19 last year and got off to a slow start in April, but he has come back to pitch very well over the past three weeks. McCaskill is 2-1 in his past six starts and has lowered his ERA from over 6.85 to 3.86.
Tough act to follow: California Angels left-hander Jim Abbott is coming off a career year, but he has come to realize that there is more to pitching than throwing the ball well. His 2-6 record can be traced to a decided lack of offensive support.
The Angels have scored a total of 20 runs in his first 10 starts, which isn't enough to make anyone a winner. They have scored only 15 runs while Abbott was still in those games and only six in the six losses.
"I'm frustrated and a little down right now," said Abbott, who bounced back from a slow start last year to win 18 games. "I have to find rewards other than winning and losing. That's the way a pitcher is judged, but I have to find other ways to save my confidence. Right now, it's running a little low."
From the home office in Arnold: With the usual apologies to talk-show host David Letterman, here's my top 10 list of reasons banished New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner should reinstated by commissioner Fay Vincent.
10. Baseball hasn't had decent blackmail scandal in more than two years.
L 9. New Yorkers tired of minor-league villain Leona Helmsley.
8. Yankees manager Buck Showalter getting just too darn comfortable.
7. Lack of meddling owner has club moving in wrong direction -- up.
6. Has agreed to cancel plans for Howard Spira Benefit Game at Yankee Stadium.
5. Misses terrorizing employees in person.
4. Willing to share hot tip on today's Reds-Expos game. (Oops, that was one of the top 10 reasons Vincent should reinstate Pete Rose).
3. Does not own a single share of Nintendo stock.
2. Has stored up several great insults for new superstar Danny Tartabull.
1. Has some catching up to do to be as unpopular as this Eli Jacobs guy.
The invisible man returns: Chicago White Sox outfielder Tim Raines has spent much of his first two years with the club trying to prove that he's really Tim Raines. He batted just .268 last year and left room to wonder whether he would ever be the game-breaking player he was during his salad years in Montreal.
But a recent surge at the plate has pushed his batting average up to .280 and and put Raines into a more positive frame of mind.
I= "I'm starting to feel good about myself again," he said.