Run-happy year isn't just expansion

On Baseball

May 31, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The latest expansion brought with it predictions of pitching peril that would -- depending on whom you talked to -- lead to the first 75-homer season, the dawn of the five-hour nine-inning game and the end of the baseball world as we know it.

Of course, that was ridiculous. There isn't enough good pitching to hold Mark McGwire to just 75 home runs; it will always be possible to play nine innings in under 4 1/2 hours, and the end of the baseball world as we know it came in 1994.

The second expansion of the 1990s has had the predicted impact on the level of pitching talent across the major leagues, but it has turned out to be only one of several factors that have contributed to an apparent upsurge in offensive production -- everywhere but Camden Yards.

The dilution of pitching talent has caused an offensive uptick in every expansion year and 1998 probably will be no different, but the situation has been aggravated by the underachievement of many of baseball's top-quality pitchers.

Consider:

The Orioles were supposed to have one of the deepest rotations in the American League, but they have had to put Mike Mussina on the disabled list twice and have lost both Scott Kamieniecki and Jimmy Key to injuries during the first two months of play.

The Seattle Mariners have developed baseball's first nuclear bullpen and still are trying to figure out what's gone wrong with pitching ace Randy Johnson and No. 3 starter Jamie Moyer.

The expansion Arizona Diamondbacks could be expected to have an expansion-quality pitching staff, but their four top starters -- all of whom would be in major-league rotations even if this were not an expansion year -- were a combined 8-24 heading into yesterday.

The starting rotation of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which was thought to be second only to the Atlanta Braves' in the National League, went into yesterday a combined 19-21.

The NL East favorite St. Louis Cardinals still are awaiting the return of injured Alan Benes and have gotten only small contributions from banged-up starters Donovan Osborne and Matt Morris.

Several other top starters around the majors, including Alex Fernandez, John Smoltz, Dwight Gooden, Kevin Appier and Ben McDonald, have been out for all or part of the season because of injuries.

It's no wonder there are six players on pace to hit more than 55 home runs and two players on pace to shatter Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record (190).

Factor in the addition of two more hitter-friendly ballparks and the environment has never been more conducive to the destruction of some of baseball's most hallowed offensive records.

McGwire: Why not?

Not that it would be such a bad thing if McGwire knocked Roger Maris out of the record book. Maris had an incredible season in 1961, but he had one of the most-feared power hitters in history batting behind him and never had to worry about being walked intentionally with the bases empty in the late innings -- something that happened to McGwire just the other night.

McGwire might be -- swing for swing -- the greatest power hitter in the history of the game. The record, as much as he denies that it is particularly important to him, would establish that, even though his opportunity to make an assault on the all-time home run record was scuttled by injuries during the early 1990s.

Fox hunt

Several baseball owners were concerned that the approval of media mogul Rupert Murdoch as owner of the Dodgers would irrevocably alter the balance of power in the National League West. Now, it appears, those fears were not unwarranted.

The Dodgers have shown little regard for the size of their payroll with the acquisitions of Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and -- if the latest rumored deal turns out to be real -- Randy Johnson. The result could be a super team that dominates the NL West for the next several years, or another object lesson for the multimillionaires who are running the sport.

The Orioles already have proved that huge expenditures don't guarantee success, but the Dodgers are in a better position to make their money talk. They have put together a much younger group of superstars and -- unlike the Orioles -- they have a deep minor-league system to go with it.

Reverse lock

The Toronto Blue Jays are the worst offensive team in the American League. Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez might be the best pitcher in the world.

Reverse lock. Advantage Blue Jays.

The Jays hit three homers and and handed Martinez his first defeat of the season on Monday. Toronto, despite the worst combined batting average in the AL, touched up Martinez for 12 hits over 7 2/3 innings to continue a weeklong offensive upsurge.

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