Anything can happen in AL's wild, wild West

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The plot has thickened in the wild, wild American League West, where no fewer than five teams are fighting for the rail as the 1991 season passes the halfway mark.

The other division races appear to be shaking themselves out. The Toronto Blue Jays are threatening to make short work of the AL East; the Los Angeles Dodgers are in control in the NL West; and the NL East has become a two-team race. But in the West, only 2 1/2 games separated first place and fifth at the All-Star break. Even the sixth-place Seattle Mariners and the last-place Kansas City Royals are too close for any kind of comfort.

This cannot be good news for the three-time defending champion Oakland Athletics, who have overcome a series of injuries to remain near the top of the standings. They have been challenged before -- by the Kansas City Royals and California Angels in 1989 and the Chicago White Sox in 1990 -- but never has baseball's only divisional dynasty been under siege from so many directions.

And never have they had to take on so many with so little pitching.

"People look at our pitching and say, 'It's going to be hard for them to win the division,' " manager Tony La Russa said recently, "and they're right."

The A's, however, are getting healthier by the day. Pitching ace Dave Stewart appears to be back on top of his game, third baseman Carney Lansford will be back soon, and the schedule over the next three weeks appears to be favorable.

The Minnesota Twins entered the weekend in first place, but their winningest pitcher (Scott Erickson) is on the disabled list and starter Jack Morris took a line drive off his foot during the All-Star Game. Without one or both, they will have a tough time staying competitive.

The Texas Rangers appear to have a solid offensive team, but they lack experience in some key areas and should begin to slip any day now. Don't forget you read it here first.

Perhaps the most dangerous team in the division is the Angels, who have four strong starters and a solid bullpen to go with an offensive lineup that is packed with proven winners. But after spending their first day in first place on July 3, they lapsed into a five-game losing streak -- their longest of the season.

There are some similarities between this season and a 1989 campaign in which the A's were left vulnerable by a string of injuries, but held off the Royals and Angels and went on to win the World Championship.

They are hanging tough again and they are beginning to heal, which cannot be good news to the rest of the division.

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Commissioner Fay Vincent continues to voice concern over the length of games, but he said during his All-Star visit to Toronto that a clear-cut solution is not at hand.

"It's a concern for a lot of players and managers, too," he said. "Andy Van Slyke made a suggestion that the catcher should be allowed to go to the mound only once in an inning. But when I asked him, 'How many times should a batter be allowed to step out of the box?' he didn't have an answer.

"It's a problem. At 10 o'clock in a lot of cities, people start leaving. But we don't want to make any Draconian moves. Baseball is a great game without a clock."

The New York Mets finally are making a push in the National League East, thanks largely to a starting rotation that has dominated opposing hitters over the past two weeks. Going into Friday night's game, Mets starters had given up just nine earned runs in 63 innings, which works out to a 1.29 ERA. Best of all, they are doing it without a single former Oriole on the staff.

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If you need any more evidence that pitching is everything, consider the streaking Toronto Blue Jays, who entered the weekend with 16 victories in their last 19 games and seemed poised to blow away the rest of the American League East.

The Blue Jays' staff allowed more than three runs in only two of those 19 games.

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Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens is impressed with the way the Blue Jays have taken control of the division.

"They're in that mode where they can be down a couple of runs and it's easy for them to come back," he said. "They don't panic when they haven't scored by the second, third or fourth inning.

"We're to the point where we don't sit and think about us. We think about the Blue Jays."

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Twins utility man Al Newman and Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Jim Gantner are neck-and-neck in baseball's no-home

run derby. Newman opened the second half with a string of 1,603 at-bats since his last and only major-league home run, which he hit in 1986. Gantner is closing in at 1,599 at-bats since he last homered on June 14, 1987, his streak more curious since he has hit 41 homers in his major-league career.

"I don't have any idea why I haven't hit a home run," Gantner said. "I hit them in batting practice all the time. I guess I've been wasting them all in BP."

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Cleveland Indians pitcher Rod Nichols entered the weekend still looking for his first victory in nearly two years and still hoping that the club will provide enough offensive support for him to get it.

Nichols hasn't won a major- league game since Sept. 14, 1989. He was 0-3 last year and is 0-7 in 1991. In his first eight starts this year, the Indians scored a total of 15 runs.

"I've got to keep thinking good things will happen," he said. "Otherwise, they won't. I really feel that things are going to change, and for all of us."

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Dodgers outfielder Mitch Webster has to be wondering about his market value about now. He has been traded twice this year, from Cleveland to Pittsburgh for winless pitcher Mike York and from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for hitless (at the time) outfielder Jose Gonzalez.

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Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson took a couple of shots Fenway Park recently, which didn't sit will with Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs.

"It's idiotic for him to complain about this ballpark," Boggs said. .. "I'd like to blow up Tiger Stadium, with that cat box at home plate with about six inches of Kitty Litter in front of home plate and that Velcro grass that's about six inches long.

"Fenway Park has been part of baseball since 1923 [actually 1912]. You can't help the dimensions. But they doctor their field."

Boggs is not the first player to charge the Tigers with softening up the home plate area to cut down ground balls. Milwaukee Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn sparked a minor feud a couple of weeks ago when he asked the umpiring crew to order the area repaired.

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What's this, a star-quality Indians pitcher who wants to stay in Cleveland?

Negotiations apparently have begun in earnest to keep Greg Swindell in a Cleveland uniform for the next three or four seasons.

"The sooner we sign a contract the better," said Swindell, who will be eligible for free agency after the 1992 season. "It would give me peace of mind. I'd know where I'm going to be for the next three years. I wouldn't have to listen to trade rumors every day. I finally would be able to get down to pitching."

The Indians might be a perennial pitching powerhouse if they had been able to keep some of the other great pitchers who have passed through town over the past 10 years. Rick Sutcliffe and Bert Blyleven stand out, though both are no longer in their prime. Bud Black and Tom Candiotti have left more recently.

Instead, the club opened the second half with only two pitchers who have won games as starters this year -- Swindell and Charles Nagy.

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Twins manager Tom Kelly was in the American League dugout when Twins pitching ace Jack Morris was hit on the foot by a line drive in the first inning of the All-Star Game, but it was A's manager Tony La Russa who seemed most upset by the incident.

"It gave me a sickening feeling," said La Russa. "You want to return everyone to their manager as good as you got them.

"Jack was real sore. I told him, 'Don't be a hero.' He went out in the second and he was a hero. That's why he started in the first place. He's one of the toughest competitors in the game."

Morris has been one of the major reasons why the Twins entered the weekend on top of the AL West standings, and his importance to the club was magnified by the recent injury to 12-game winner Scott Erickson. If Morris misses any starts, the major beneficiary just might be La Russa and the A's.

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The San Francisco Giants still hold out faint hope for a miracle comeback in the second half, and there is a very famous precedent. The '51 New York Giants came back after being behind 13 games on Aug. 11. The '91 Giants entered the weekend 14 1/2 games out and tied for last place in the tough NL West.

"If it's happened once, it can happen again," manager Roger Craig told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's out there. We just have to go get it."

But this is a longer shot than '51, because the Giants have five teams to overtake. The '51 Giants were in second place when they began their run at the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rumor of the week: There is talk that the Milwaukee Brewers will help the Angels solve their fifth-starter problem by sending right-hander Chris Bosio to Anaheim. No word on whom the Brewers would get in return.

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