NL expansion turning June into September

June 29, 1993|By Paul Hagen | Paul Hagen,Knight-Ridder News Service

PITTSBURGH -- The new National League schedule, like real life, is rigged against the underdog. Tugged and twisted into the awkward balanced format by expansion, followers have fewer chances to become leaders than has been customary.

This is a truth that already has occurred to the St. Louis Cardinals.

They were in second place of the National League East, 7 1/2 games behind the Phillies, heading into last night's first of four games at Busch Stadium.

There still is three months and change left before this regular season can be entered into the archives, more than half the schedule to be played out. And yet, after the Phillies jet home following Thursday afternoon's game, St. Louis has only six more games scheduled against Philadelphia this year. Only six more opportunities to crawl back into contention the most direct way, by playing the team you have to beat head-to-head.

That's why the Cardinals circled these four games in red on their mental pocket schedules.

"It is," admits Cardinals third baseman Todd Zeile, "as important a series as you can have in June."

It is for St. Louis, anyway. Even after the Phillies' disheartening 4-3 loss to the Pirates in 10 innings Sunday at Three Rivers Stadium, all the math works in their favor. For example, if the Phillies do no better than play .500 baseball for the rest of the season, they will win 95 games. For the Cardinals just to match that, they must go 52-37 . . . a .584 percentage.

The Cardinals are fully aware of this, too. They have won 18 of their last 23 games and picked up only three games on the Phillies.

"What race?" Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith asks rhetorically. "There ain't no race right now. The Phillies are pretty much trying to put us all to sleep."

Smith overstates the case, particularly after Mitch Williams was torched in the 10th as the Pirates scored twice to win. It was his fifth blown save of the year.

As recently as June 13, the Phillies led St. Louis and Montreal by 11 1/2 games. That adds a little edge to the next four games.

Said Phillies second baseman Mickey Morandini: "It's a pretty big series. That's because we don't play these teams as much as we did in the past. I definitely think it's bigger for them than it is for us, because a split doesn't do them any good."

Catcher Darren Daulton said he's glad the Phillies are playing the hot Cardinals next, even though the Phillies are just 6-6 in their last dozen games.

"I think everybody is looking forward to playing St. Louis," he said. "This is the team we want to play. It gives us a chance to

make up whatever we've lost.

"I would think where we are right now is a pretty good place to be. We haven't been hitting the ball real well, but you're going to go through periods like this. We came in here a little flat. We didn't have a good series. Now it's time to pick up and move on."

If nothing else, the Phillies had to be happy when their charter cleared Pittsburgh airspace Sunday afternoon. Not only did they lose the last two games to drop a series for only the fourth time this season, but they did it in in a particularly grisly way.

They probably should have won before the game went into extra innings. But the momentum shifted on two plays in the eighth inning, one on an umpire's call that was missed in the top of the inning, the other a ground ball up the middle.

With the Phillies leading, 2-1, Pete Incaviglia led off the eighth against Pirates reliever Blas Miner with a double to left. Playing for the insurance run, Duncan bunted Incaviglia to third. The strategy appeared to pay off when Todd Pratt lifted a fly ball to shallow right.

Incaviglia tagged up and broke for the plate. The throw from Lloyd McClendon arrived first, but television replays clearly showed that Pirates catcher Tom Prince didn't touch Incaviglia until after he had slid across the plate. Home plate ump Steve Rippley missed it. He called Incaviglia out, ending the inning.

"There's no question in my mind I was safe," Incaviglia said. "[Rippley] wasn't in the right spot to make the call. He was behind the catcher and he never saw where [Prince] tagged me.

"That would have been a big run. But it does no good to say anything. They're always right and we're always wrong."

After St. Louis tied it, the Phillies took the lead in the top of the 10th. Lenny Dykstra led off with a double, was bunted to third and scored on Incaviglia's sacrifice fly to center. The Phillies, it seemed, would pull another one out.

Not this time. Williams blew a save opportunity for the first time since May 26 and the Phillies headed to St. Louis with a two-game losing streak.

"Any time you play the club that's behind you, they're big games," Fregosi said. "And they've been playing great as of late."

The Phillies can't say the same.

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