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No thanks to Jays, Dodgers, there are 2 decent pennant races THE PENNANT RACES

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

TORONTO -- Another yawner of an All-Star Game is over and baseball's best scattered to the hinterlands yesterday in pursuit of what it is hoped will be some real drama -- the pennant races.

When last we left them, the Dodgers and Blue Jays were threatening to make runaways of the National League West and American League East races, respectively, while over in the NL East,the Mets were at last looking like serious challengers to the Pirates.As for the AL West,well,that may turn out to be the wildest race of all,with five teams coming out of the All-Star break entertaining legitimate pennant aspirations.

Here's a capsule look at how the races shape up for the second half of the season:

AL EAST * The Blue Jays come out of the break having won 15 of their last games to open up a 5 1/2 -game bulge on the Red Sox. More significantly, they have fortified their one weak link -- the starting rotation -- with the steal of knuckleballer Tom Candiotti from the hapless Indians for three prospects they didn't need.

At the same time, the Red Sox pitching is hurting with three starters -- high-priced free agents Danny Darwin and Matt Young and rookie Mike Gardiner -- all on the disabled list. For all the money they spent on free agents in the offseason, the Red Sox are now looking to three rookies earning the $100,000 minimum -- pitchers Gardiner and Kevin Morton and first baseman Mo Vaughn -- to provide the impetus they need to overhaul the Blue Jays. If the Red Sox can stay close into August, look for GM Lou Gorman to part with some more prospects -- third baseman Scott Cooper, outfielder Phil Plantier, to name two -- in a deal for a starting pitcher.

It would be nice to say the Yankees will be playing pennant-race baseball as well this second half,but achieving and maintaining .500 looks to be their prime challenge.You can't expect them to keep pace with the leaders with three still-unproven rookies in the rotation.still,third place is well within their reach and who,back in March,would have thumbed their nose at that?

AL WEST * Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella says this is his favorite division watch this year. "It's like watching a pinball machine," he said. "Everybody's up and down, up and down."

Nobody, least of all the Rangers, Twins, Angels, Athletics or White Sox, would argue with that. They've all had their ups and downs this year and, as a result, find themselves in one of the best pennant races in years. For the A's to make it four straight, they must have a return to form by their ace Dave Stewart and a return to the lineup by shortstop Walt Weiss. Third baseman Carney Lansford also is vowing to return by August, but his loss hasn't been felt nearly as much as Stewart's slump, Weiss' latest injury and the failure to adequately replace Scott Sanderson as the No. 4 starter in the rotation.

The Rangers and Twins come out of the break sharing first place, but both have pitching question marks. If Scott Erickson's sore arm is more than just tendinitis, you can write off the Twins. The Rangers, though easily the best offensive club in the league, can't expect to win unless they get another quality starter. They have only one starter (Kevin Brown) with more than five wins and their overall team ERA is 4.10. In the last 60 years, only five teams have won pennants with ERAs of 4.10 or higher. In third baseman Steve Buechele, a free agent-to-be, the Rangers have the one commodity that could bring a big-time starter, but GM Tom Grieve is strapped by the $20 million budget the Rangers' owners have imposed on him.

If ever there was a year the Angels might finally win one for Gene Autry, this would appear to be it. But they are an aging team with a suspect defense and you have to wonder if they can stand the test of August and September. Word is they're looking to further fortify their starting pitching by dealing for the Brewers' (presently injured) Chris Bosio.

The White Sox, after floundering near the bottom of the AL West through most of April, May and June, finally seem to have straightened out their pitching and went into the break having won 13 of their last 17.Don't be surprised if they make a pitch for the Expos'Dennis Martinez if they're close in August.In the meantime,they're close in August.In the meantime,They've apparently given up on reviving Cory Snyder's career and likely will release both him and fast-faded second baseman Scotty fletcher before long.

NL EAST * Pirates manager Jim Leyland is hearing Met steps and it worries him that his penurious front office won't make a deal for a much-needed offensive third baseman to replace Jeff King pTC (likely out for the season with a back injury). What should worry the Mets is that the Bucs have hung tough in first almost all year despite performance-hindering injuries to all three of their middle-of-the-order meal tickets -- Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke. As Leyland knows, his bench is shallow and the Pirates can't sustain any major injuries to their key starters.

Hottest rumor at the All-Star Game was the "imminent" trade of Ron Darling by the Mets. Never mind to whom or for what. That the Mets are suddenly in a position to deal Darling -- and get something substantial back for him -- tells you they're a team to be reckoned with after all. They're going to need a little more of Doc Gooden vintage '88 and a little less of those spasms in John Franco's back, but they've got the pitching and the depth to win this thing. It is a tribute to those two factors that the Mets are where they are despite a suspect defense and a so-far unfulfilled season from Vince Coleman.

The Cardinals have been baseball's Cinderella team, but it looks as if their glass slipper is beginning to crack. Losing Pedro Guerrero with a hairline fracture of his right leg figures to put a serious crimp in their offense.Like the Yankees,the Cardinals should feel it's been a great season if they can finish third.If they do fall out of it by August,it would not be surprising to see them finally deal Ozzie Smith to a contender in need of a winning shortstop for the stretch run.

NL WEST * Piniella's optimism to the contrary, the Dodgers look unstoppable coming out of the break. All five of their starting pitchers are sound and sailing. Yes, every so often their defense plays like they're in a mine field, but it hasn't been nearly as bad

as everyone thought. The Dodgers would like to deal surplus third baseman Jeff Hamilton for some bullpen help, but otherwise they look solid all around. Imagine if Darryl Strawberry finally starts delivering on his $20.4 million in the second half?

The defending world champion Reds come out of the break with three of their front-line starters -- Jose Rijo, Norm Charlton and Scott Scudder -- down. Scudder is expected back by the weekend, but the other two are out until July 25 at the earliest. Fortunately, the Reds have seven off-days in July and do not play the Dodgers until August. But will they still be in it then? Piniella vows his troops will hang tough and steamroll the division when Rijo and Charlton return.

His native sons, however, are restless. At the All-Star Game, both Rob Dibble and Barry Larkin criticized the Reds' front office for its failure to deal for a front-line starter. Larkin cites Reds' owner Marge Schott's frugal ways and questions management's commitment to winning.

He's right on. The Reds blew it on Tom Candiotti (his dancing knuckler would have been the perfect complement to all that bullpen heat of theirs) and they don't seem inclined to make any pitch for the Dennis Martinezes or Darlings because of their salaries. They have both prospects (outfielder Chris Jones, pitcher Gino Minutelli) or established backups (Mariano Duncan and Todd Benzinger) to offer, but Piniella is going to have to go directly to Schott to get anything done.

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