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Final countdown begins with three division races still in balance

The final countdown is about to begin, and only one of the four division races has been decided with any reasonable degree of certainty. All hail the conquering Oakland Athletics, but who can figure the rest of this mess?

The Cincinnati Reds have set the pace in the National League West from the start, but they still hold a substantial lead only because the Los Angeles Dodgers can't hold a substantial lead. This will be explained in more detail presently.

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are hanging on in the NL East, despite their inability to shake the New York Mets, but you can't even count out the surging Montreal Expos just yet.

The Toronto Blue Jays finally wrested the American League East lead away from the Boston Red Sox a few days ago before the Red Sox pulled back into a tie Friday night, but neither team is known for its killer instinct down the stretch.

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Only one thing is certain. The next 10 days are going to be very interesting -- unless you're an A's fan, in which case the next 10 days should be very relaxing. The rest of us will be immersed in a three-pronged pennant race.

Here's a quick look at each of the undecided divisions:

* NL WEST: The Reds appear to be safe, but the Dodgers would be dangerously close if they could hold a big lead. They have lost seven games this year in which they had a 5-0 lead and three games the past month in which they held commanding leads on nights the Reds had already lost.

The worst was the Aug. 21 game in which the Philadelphia Phillies scored nine runs in the ninth inning to overcome an 11-3 deficit, but the Dodgers blew a 7-0 lead to the Houston Astros two weeks later. Wednesday night, they had a four-run lead over the San Diego Padres with a chance to close to within 3 1/2 games of Cincinnati. The Padres came back to win, 9-4.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Charlie Leibrandt lost to the Dodgers last week and still wondered aloud about their intensity -- or lack of it.

"Their pitching is pretty good and they've got a pretty good lineup," Leibrandt said. "The only thing I question is their intensity day in and day out. Sometimes they look great and sometimes they look like they're just going through the motions."

The Reds, meanwhile, have done little to assert themselves, though they recovered from back-to-back losses against the Dodgers last week to score a resounding victory when it mattered the most.

* NL EAST: The Pirates managed to hold off the Mets' post-Davey Johnson surge and have successfully resisted every challenge since. They have become America's Team, which is any team that can keep the Mets out of the playoffs.

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They realized that on Thursday at Wrigley Field, when the crowd cheered wildly at a scoreboard update that showed the Expos defeating the Mets in the first game of a doubleheader.

Said outfielder Andy Van Slyke: "I didn't realize so many people hated the Mets in Chicago, too."

The race hasn't exactly been a clash of the titans. The Pirates had to end a six-game losing streak Wednesday to push the Mets back to 1 1/2 games out.

* AL EAST: In the division where the folding chairs are flying higher than the folding Red Sox, catcher Tony Pena lost some friends in the Boston clubhouse when he called the team a bunch of "quitters" during a chair-throwing tantrum in Baltimore. But who could argue?

The Red Sox needed just 16 days to go from 6 1/2 games ahead of the Blue Jays to one game behind them. Toronto isn't exactly the comeback team of the decade, but the Jays suddenly have been stricken with a serious case of ninth-inning magic. If this keeps up, they'll play host to the playoffs for the second year in a row.

That would be unfortunate, but only because there aren't enough window seats at SkyDome's Hard Rock Cafe for everybody.

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The firing of Chicago White Sox general manager Larry Himes happened too late last Saturday for any comment in last week's column, but it is worth a second look.

Himes took over an organization in shambles and carried the Sox back into contention in his fourth year as GM. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf explained Himes' dismissal by saying that the White Sox had gotten from point A to point B under Himes, but didn't figure to get to point C (as in championship) without new leadership. He was right, but he didn't go high enough up the chain of command.

The White Sox management style has been curious, and the only common thread is Reinsdorf himself. The club has had only two winning seasons in the past seven years -- 1985 and 1990 -- and he fired the general manager after each of those two seasons. Roland Hemond was replaced after an 85-77 campaign in '85 by former player and broadcaster Ken Harrelson, who turned out to be the best thing to happen to the organization since the Black Sox scandal.

The Sox also fired Tony La Russa in 1986 after he had winning records in four of the previous five years with the club, more proof that the team considers winning to be somewhat overrated.

One Chicago columnist recently accused Reinsdorf of something called "creeping Steinbrennerism," but it is much simpler than that. The White Sox chairman has simply forgotten a basic management principle -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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Stupid $16 Million Injury of the Week: California Angels pitcher Mark Langston left a recent game against the Seattle Mariners when a cap came off one of his teeth. Reliever Bryan Harvey inherited a 3-2 lead and gave up a game-losing, three-run homer to Ken Griffey Jr. The Angels have fallen victim to a number of mental errors lately, but this was the first dental one.

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Former Oriole Eddie Murray has an outside chance to become the first Dodgers batting champion since Tommy Davis hit .326 in 1963.

Murray entered yesterday's game hitting .329 with 25 home runs and 91 RBI. He's a .291 career hitter who never has hit better than .316 in the majors, but he's batting .366 since the All-Star break, with 15 homers and 53 RBI.

In the eight-game road trip that ended Tuesday, Murray hit .520 to continue a September surge that has him within six points of league batting leader Willie McGee, and all this despite a sore wrist that has bothered him for the past two weeks.

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Murray isn't saying much about his late-season run at the batting title, which should not come as a big surprise to Baltimore Orioles fans.

"There are still a lot of games to be played," he said. "A lot of things can happen. I never think about any of that stuff while there are still games to be played."

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Now that the San Diego Padres have fired GM Jack McKeon, the team is expected to give Himes a long look. Toronto Blue Jays executive Gordon Ashe and Seattle Mariners VP Roger Jongewaard also are among the candidates. The Padres asked the Minnesota Twins for permission to talk to GM Andy MacPhail, but MacPhail declined to be interviewed.

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Trivia question: Everyone should know by now that Cal Ripken is closing in on the major-league record for fewest errors by a shortstop (150 games or more) in a single season. But who can name the player who holds the major-league record for errors in a single day?

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Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds has become the first 30-30 man (30 home runs, 30 stolen bases) in club history and is one stolen base away from becoming only the second 30-50 man in major-league history. His father, Bobby Bonds, had five 30-30 seasons, prompting some obvious comparisons and one brash comment from the son. "My goal is to put up numbers where no father-son team will ever, ever be able to reach them," Barry said. "Then I hope my son carries it on."

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The Mets have developed an Achilles' heel, their inability to hit left-handed pitching. The Mets entered yesterday's game with a 59-36 record against right-handed starters and a 24-31 record when a left-hander starts against them.

"The left-handed pitching historically has given us problems, but this year I think it's worse than ever," said first baseman Dave Magadan. "Hopefully in the pressure of a pennant drive and with the will to do well, we can overcome it. What do you do to get tTC out of it? I don't know. Concentrate a little bit more and don't read all articles that tell us we stink against lefties."

Lately, the Mets also have had trouble with rookies, as evidenced by their four losses to rookie starters in the past week and their one-hit performance against former Towson State star Chris Nabholz on Thursday.

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Trivia answer: If you knew this one off the top of your head, you're spending far too much time indoors. Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty committed nine errors in a doubleheader July 4, 1890 -- that's six more errors than Ripken has made in his first 150 games this season.


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