Angels' slump, Dodgers' losses signal troubled California dreaming

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Looks like trouble in paradise. The Los Angeles Dodgers and California Angels were on top of the baseball world a couple of weeks ago, but both teams have fallen on hard times.

The Dodgers remain in control of the National League West race, but only because the Cincinnati Reds matched them loss for loss (and then some) during a recent seven-game skid.

The Angels took over first place July 3, only to slip into an offensive slump and slip back into the pack in the American League West.

In Los Angeles, the focal point of the frustration is outfielder Darryl Strawberry, who seems to have lost the competitive fire that made him one of the most feared hitters in baseball the past eight years. He averaged 32 home runs and 92 RBI for the New York Mets from 1983-90, but has just 10 homers and 36 RBI this year.

Teammates are tying the transformation to his religious conversion, even those who share his new-found Christianity.

"You know what I don't see anymore," said catcher Gary Carter, a former Mets teammate now with the Dodgers. "I don't see that anger in his swing. I don't see that feeling in his bat speed. In New York, you could watch him from the dugout when he swung and it would be 'whoosh.' I don't see that anymore."

Center fielder Brett Butler took Strawberry aside during pre-game workouts in Montreal last weekend and told him that being a good Christian doesn't require you to feel sorry for the opposing pitcher.

"Brett told me I had to start getting mad," Strawberry said. "He told me I had to start getting mean. I have not had any anger or frustration for a long time. When I get frustrated, I see the ball better. I have better concentration. I don't have that now, and I don't know why."

That intensity resurfaced when the Dodgers made their second trip into New York. Strawberry hit a three-run homer to lead the team to a 10-5 victory Thursday night.

Meanwhile in Anaheim, the Angels were trying to emerge from a horrible offensive slump that has touched almost everyone in the starting lineup. In one recent stretch, they lost eight of 10 games and scored a total of 10 runs in the eight losses. In the first six games after the All-Star break, they went 2-4 even though the pitching staff did not allow more than two runs in any of the six games.

Now that's an offensive slump.

Going into last night's game, Wally Joyner was 5-for-33, Dave Winfield was 6-for-51, Lance Parrish was 2-for-33, Luis Polonia was 4-for-36, Gary Gaetti had homered just once in his previous 40 games and the team had gone 295 at-bats without a home run.

"It ain't that hard," said Winfield of the home run drought. "There

aren't that many good pitchers in the league."

Baseball always has placed a premium on left-handed pitching, but you'd never know it from the latest American League save statistics. Going into yesterday's games, there had been 341 saves recorded in the AL this year, but only 41 by left-handers. That's 12 percent, compared with 24 percent a year ago.

xTC Why the sudden downturn? Actually, it can be explained away fairly easily. Former New York Yankees reliever Dave Righetti moved to the National League, and Milwaukee Brewers stopper Dan Plesac has only seven saves this year. The two of them combined for 60 of the league's 146 left-handed saves last year.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the NL has seen an upswing in the percentage of saves by left-handers, from 32 percent last year to nearly 40 percent in 1990.

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Marvelous Marvin's Fan Club: Atlanta Braves reliever Marvin Freeman is not exactly a household name yet, but he already has a fan club, which boasts 30 members and used to feature a periodic newsletter from the man to his public.

The newsletter had to be abandoned because it was too time-consuming, but Freeman has not abandoned his fan following.

"I just finally gave them all my home number so they can call me any time they want," Freeman said.

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Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken has been the hottest hitter in the American League for much of the season, but that only leaves him more impressed with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, which has remained unchallenged for 50 years.

"It's hard to imagine," Ripken said. "To put together a 10-game streak seems like an eternity. For me, it [a 56-game hitting streak] is incomprehensible, something that you can't really relate to.

"To me, it's pretty hard to imagine that anybody will surpass that. I guess you can't say it will never be broken, but it seems inconceivable that it will ever be broken."

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Neion Deion Update: When we last left the irrepressible Deion Sanders, he was making a solid first impression with the Braves. But alas, he has fallen on hard times at the plate and seems destined to return to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons with the Braves' blessing. The price tag to keep him in baseball would approach $3 million -- Sanders' salary plus compensation to the Falcons -- which is quite a lot for a .198 hitter who has appeared in less than half the club's games.

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Well, you can't lose them all. Cleveland Indians pitcher Rod Nichols finally broke a two-year losing streak when he defeated Bob Welch and the Oakland Athletics, 2-1, last week. It was Nichols' first major-league victory since Sept. 14, 1989.

Since then, he had made 16 major-league starts and was 0-13, though his lack of success in 1991 was less a matter of how he pitched than who he pitched for. Nichols has a 3.59 ERA in 11 starts, but the Indians have scored an average of 1.6 runs in the games he's pitched.

The victory also broke a couple of other streaks. Nichols was 0-4 lifetime against the A's and 0-16 lifetime against the AL West.

"People told me I finally got the monkey off my back," Nichols said. "I feel like I've got the whole zoo off my back."

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A look ahead: The final week of the AL pennant race could feature a rare final-week showdown between the prospective division champions, depending on how the wild AL West race shakes out.

The runaway Toronto Blue Jays play their final six games of the regular season against the Angels and Minnesota Twins, which leaves open the possibility that the Blue Jays could play their final three regular-season games against the Twins at the Metrodome and remain in Minnesota to open the playoffs a few days later.

Of course, this is all based on the assumption that the Blue Jays win the AL East, but that seems like a pretty fair assumption at this point.

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Braves infield prospect Chipper Jones, the top pick in last year's amateur draft, has committed 25 throwing errors in little more than half a season with the Class A Macon Braves.

"I have absolutely no confidence in my throwing," Jones said recently. "It's gotten to the point where I couldn't tell you where the ball is going to end up when I get it."

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Kansas City Royals catcher Mike Macfarlane couldn't have picked a less opportune time to go down with a season-ending injury. He was in the midst of a breakthrough season when he tore a knee ligament in a home-plate collision with Blue Jays outfielder Joe Carter on Monday.

MacFarlane was hitting .273 with 13 home runs (one more than his previous three seasons combined) and was playing very well behind the plate, all of which was adding up to an impressive case in his first year of arbitration eligibility.

The Detroit Tigers opened the second half with a seven-man starting rotation, though not by design. Manager Sparky Anderson has been plugging holes in his pitching staff all year, and he plugged seven different starters into the first seven games after the All-Star break.

"I don't think in my situation I can worry two or three days ahead," Anderson said. "If you were in my situation, you'd be going one day at a time, too."

True enough. The Tigers entered the weekend last in the league in team ERA and last in the league in team batting average, so how can it be that they are in second place in the AL East? Probably because they lead the league in runs scored and have hit more home runs in the past 41 games (64) than seven other teams have hit all year.

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Trivia time: What aging free-agent right-hander did Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi say he could replace "with two )) 8-7 pitchers" after the 1979 season?

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Yankees fans were in a panic after Righetti became a free agent and signed with the San Francisco Giants, but Righetti is yet to be missed.

The Yankees, with a retooled bullpen that includes Steve Howe and former Oriole John Habyan, are 36-0 in games they led going into the ninth inning.

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Strange but true dept.: Cincinnati Reds pitcher Kip Gross lost two games last Sunday -- 1,164 miles apart. Gross was the losing pitcher in the Reds' 10-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that day. He also was the pitcher of record in the continuation of a suspended game in Denver for the Class AAA Nashville Sounds. He started the game on May 15 and suffered the loss on July 14.

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Trivia answer: Nolan Ryan, who was snubbed by the Angels because he was older than 30 and was asking for a million-dollar contract. Ryan, 44, just signed a contract extension with the Texas Rangers that could bring him more than $4 million for each of the next two seasons. The Angels have signed a number of "8-7 pitchers" in the 12 years since, but eventually saw the error of their ways and tried to re-sign Ryan in 1989.

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