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You can look it up: After 13 months, Pirates finally hit a downbeat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Pittsburgh Pirates will get no sympathy from the rest of the National League East, but they are in danger of ending the month of May in second place.

Why is this so significant?

Because the Bucs have closed out each of the previous 13 months of regular-season play at the top of the standings, a streak that hasn't been matched since the New York Yankees finished 18 consecutive months in first place from 1926 to 1928.

The Pirates aren't in the same class as the Murderers' Row Yanks, of course. It's probably a little easier to finish on top of a six-team division than an eight-team league. But in this age of baseball parity -- with superstars hopping from team to team every year and few of them hopping toward Pittsburgh -- the 13-month streak is an achievement of considerable note.

It would not even be in question if the Pirates hadn't lapsed into a 1-11 slump. They recently returned home from a 1-8 road trip that was the worst of its length in the history of the franchise.

Pitching has been a problem. The club went nearly three weeks without a victory from a starting pitcher, that streak ending Friday night when Vicente Palacios got the decision in a 13-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants. Pitching ace Doug Drabek went into last night without a victory since April 22.

"You're not going to win many games when you give up six, seven, eight runs a game," Pirates manager Jim Leyland said. "If you do that, you're going to get your butt beat all year."

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Johnson strikes back: Seattle Mariners pitcher Randy Johnson, who removed himself from Tuesday night's game against the Orioles after two innings, did not take kindly to post-game criticism by manager Bill Plummer.

"He can criticize my performance, but he doesn't have the right to call me a quitter," Johnson said. "I'm going to handle this as professionally as I can, which is more than Plummer did."

Johnson, who was pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career, insisted he left the game because he was "wiped out." He had thrown a lot of pitches in his previous three starts TTC and was not happy to come back on short rest.

After the game, Plummer held up the example of Orioles starter Rick Sutcliffe, who came back on two days' rest to throw 114 pitches and get the victory.

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He who laughs last department: The jury is still out on Chicago White Sox right-hander Kirk McCaskill, but Orioles types gloating over the club's decision to shy away from McCaskill last winter might be a little premature. True, he went 10-19 last year and got off to a slow start in April, but he has come back to pitch very well over the past three weeks. McCaskill is 2-1 in his past six starts and has lowered his ERA from over 6.85 to 3.86.

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Tough act to follow: California Angels left-hander Jim Abbott is coming off a career year, but he has come to realize that there is more to pitching than throwing the ball well. His 2-6 record can be traced to a decided lack of offensive support.

The Angels have scored a total of 20 runs in his first 10 starts, which isn't enough to make anyone a winner. They have scored only 15 runs while Abbott was still in those games and only six in the six losses.

"I'm frustrated and a little down right now," said Abbott, who bounced back from a slow start last year to win 18 games. "I have to find rewards other than winning and losing. That's the way a pitcher is judged, but I have to find other ways to save my confidence. Right now, it's running a little low."

From the home office in Arnold: With the usual apologies to talk-show host David Letterman, here's my top 10 list of reasons banished New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner should reinstated by commissioner Fay Vincent.

10. Baseball hasn't had decent blackmail scandal in more than two years.

L 9. New Yorkers tired of minor-league villain Leona Helmsley.

8. Yankees manager Buck Showalter getting just too darn comfortable.

7. Lack of meddling owner has club moving in wrong direction -- up.

6. Has agreed to cancel plans for Howard Spira Benefit Game at Yankee Stadium.

5. Misses terrorizing employees in person.

4. Willing to share hot tip on today's Reds-Expos game. (Oops, that was one of the top 10 reasons Vincent should reinstate Pete Rose).

3. Does not own a single share of Nintendo stock.

2. Has stored up several great insults for new superstar Danny Tartabull.

1. Has some catching up to do to be as unpopular as this Eli Jacobs guy.

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The invisible man returns: Chicago White Sox outfielder Tim Raines has spent much of his first two years with the club trying to prove that he's really Tim Raines. He batted just .268 last year and left room to wonder whether he would ever be the game-breaking player he was during his salad years in Montreal.

But a recent surge at the plate has pushed his batting average up to .280 and and put Raines into a more positive frame of mind.

I= "I'm starting to feel good about myself again," he said.

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Stupid stat of the week: The Angels, who defeated Sutcliffe last weekend, have an 8-1 record against starting pitchers whose last names begin with an S.

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Special bonus stupid stat: The White Sox are 7-0 on Sundays.

Money well spent?: The New York Mets spent $37 million to sign free agents Bobby Bonilla and Eddie Murray last winter, but the two marquee names haven't helped at the box office. Coming into a weekend series against the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium, the Mets' home attendance is down about 160,000 over last year.

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Puckett update: Contract negotiations between the Minnesota Twins and Kirby Puckett appear to be at a standstill, but Puckett has taken the same "What, me worry?" approach as fellow superstar and Ron Shapiro client Cal Ripken.

"Nothing bothers me," Puckett said. "I don't have time to be bothered. I know I'll be playing somewhere next year. That's all I think about and it has worked so far."

Trivia question: Speaking of stadium firsts (and don't we do that lot these days?), who hit the first regular-season home run at the Oakland Coliseum?

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Dodger blues: Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Kal Daniels is beginning to fill the void left by injured outfielders Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis, but he apparently hasn't forgotten his winter of discontent.

Daniels was the target of off-season criticism from Strawberry, who told a reporter that Daniels was not a team player and should be traded for the good of the club. Now the Dodgers have to be thankful they didn't take that advice. He has begun to contribute at the plate and played a starring role in the club's 5-1 run last week.

"Since the season started, I could have been a bad guy," Daniels said. "I could have gone to the press with my complaints. I could have caused all kinds of trouble. But people don't realize that has never been my style. I chose to be quiet. I figured if I could get a chance to play and do what I can do, that would be all I needed to say."

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Playing with pain for a price: Angels catcher Lance Parrish returned from the disabled list recently, though he still has painful bone spurs in his right elbow. He is a candidate for surgery, but he is hesitant to give up half the season with free agency staring him in the face at the end of the year.

"It's a dilemma," said Parrish. "If I had the luxury of knowing what was going to happen next year, I would get this taken care of now. But I don't have that luxury. I feel like I have to put up some numbers, and the only way I can do that is to play."

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The extrovert: New Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou used to a pretty quiet guy. He didn't say a lot to the press and he didn't often allow himself to be drawn into controversy. But all that has changed since he was named to replace Tom Runnells, and there is a good reason.

"I have the benefit of old age," he said. "I can say whatever I want and do whatever I want. If they don't like me, they can fire me. I'm still almost 60 years old."

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Trivia answer: If you said Reggie Jackson hit the first Oakland Coliseum home run, skip the Jeopardy tryout and go back to the books. Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson was the first to drive a ball into the bleachers there, homering off Lew Krausse to christen the stadium on April 17, 1968.

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