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Yankees: no second fiddle, just sweet music

THE BALTIMORE SUN

These are better days for the New York Yankees, who have picked the perfect time to establish themselves as American League East contenders.

Now, they can sit back with impunity and watch the New York papers strip the bones of a New York Mets franchise that has to look up to see the expansion Florida Marlins. How sweet that must be for Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who has had to play second fiddle to the Mets for much of the past decade.

The Yankees are in second place going into a four-game series against the Orioles that begins tomorrow night at Yankee Stadium. They are winning in spite of the loss of first baseman Don Mattingly and center fielder Bernie Williams, both to rib-cage injuries. They are winning because they are getting good starting pitching and they are getting production from every corner of the roster.

First baseman Jim Leyritz has come off the bench to hit .342 with five home runs and 18 RBI. Catcher Mike Stanley was hitting .329 with four homers and 15 RBI. Dion James, who replaced Williams in center field, is hitting .386. Yankees pinch hitters are batting a combined .364 (12-for-33).

For once, a club that used to be known for its awful front-office decisions can look back on an off-season in which it made all the right moves. Free-agent acquisition Jimmy Key is 4-1 with a 1.87 ERA and has emerged as the ace of the staff. Left-hander Jim Abbott had some bad luck early, but he is coming on. Outfielder Paul O'Neill, who was acquired in a controversial trade for Roberto Kelly, is hitting .323 with 18 RBI. Third baseman Wade Boggs went 4-for-4 in his return to Boston Friday, is batting .297 and is providing a steadying influence on the field.

The club spent a lot of money and has one of the highest payrolls in baseball ($43 million), but there finally are enough quality players in the lineup and on the bench to make the Yankees a legitimate contender for the division title.

"What we've got to do is stay up there close and keep right in the hunt," Steinbrenner said recently. "As long as there's only one team ahead of us, we'll be all right."

He knows -- as everyone does -- that the Detroit Tigers likely could be a supernova that flares out long before September. The Yankees were expected to be one of the top teams in the East, so they are positioned for that eventuality. They just have to keep doing what they're doing.

The Eck factor

Orioles relief pitcher Gregg Olson isn't the only closer to find out that that success isn't automatic anymore. The main man himself -- Dennis Eckersley -- can't even take a save situation for granted.

After a save Friday, Eckersley has a 5.40 ERA with seven saves in 11 opportunities . . . and Olson is getting booed by spoiled Orioles fans for saving only eight of 10. Perhaps they can commiserate when the Orioles and Oakland Athletics play next week in California, because both are getting abuse from fans for failing to live up to their own high standards.

"I've had three bad innings and everybody's on my case," Eckersley said recently. "What it comes down to is three bad innings."

There is more to it than that, of course. The once-unhittable Eckersley has given up 16 hits in 16 2/3 innings. The once-unerring Eckersley has walked almost as many batters in the first six weeks of the 1993 season (six) as he walked in the 1989 and '90 seasons combined (seven).

"I'm more impatient about it than the fans," he said. "I just can't slack it off. I guess I'm just a victim of my own success, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Do you think I want to be mediocre? A lot has happened this year that has never happened before. I can't explain it."

From the home office in Arnold

With the usual apologies to carpetbagging free agent David )) Letterman, here is my list of the top 10 network gimmicks to increase interest in Major League Baseball:

10. Move Game of the Week into the time slot behind "Roseanne."

9. Move Tom Arnold sitcom into time slot before NBA playoffs.

8. Hire play-by-play man named Conan.

7. Step up search for commissioner with special "Unsolved Mysteries" episode.

6. More gratuitous blimp shots.

5. Introduce technological innovation: embarrassing scratch-cam.

4. Rush Limbaugh pre-game show.

3. Replace boring bunt play with human sacrifice.

2. Institute 900-number You-Make-The-Call umpiring system.

1. Caesars Palace inning-card girls.

Just up the road

The surprising Philadelphia Phillies are playing such a rough-and-tumble style of baseball that outsiders think they are a little bit crazy, but manager Jim Fregosi says it's just a throwback to better days.

"Just because these guys play hard and get their uniforms dirty and run every ball out in today's game, that doesn't mean that they are nuts," he said, "but it is different from the way a lot of people play the game."

Everybody knows your name

St. Louis Cardinals infielder Todd Zeile delivered an interesting perspective on "Cheers" character Sam Malone when asked about the aging fictional ex-ballplayer last week.

"I think that's everybody's fear -- to be an alcoholic reliving your glory days and running a bar," Zeile said. "But, hey, we can all respect the pride he takes in his hair."

Tiger tales

The Tigers continue to hammer out win after win with their intimidating offensive attack, but the real difference in the club // from last year to this year is on the mound. Through their first 38 games, the Tigers had a 24-14 record and a 3.99 team ERA, compared with a 17-21 record and a 4.79 ERA last year.

"The difference is pitching," manager Sparky Anderson said. "Pitching dominates. You can hit all you want, but it you don't pitch, you don't win."

Orioles manager Johnny Oates has reached the point where he could turn that quote entirely around. The Orioles entered the weekend on a 13-game pitching roll in which they led the major leagues in ERA and won just six games.

Farewell to arms

The Minnesota Twins don't have to look any farther than their pitching staff to find the reason for their seventh-place standing. They gave up 11 runs three times in a four-game stretch last week and allowed the opposition to score in double figures 10 times in their first 38 games (26 percent). Last year, the Twins staff allowed 10 or more runs in a game seven times in 162 games.

The pitching crisis is team-wide, but a lot of the attention from it has focused on staff aces Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani, both of whom have been awful in the early going. Erickson has a 2-5 record and a 6.59 ERA. Tapani is 2-4 with a 6.11 ERA.

We are family

Pitcher Terry Mulholland responding to a question on the family atmosphere that has begun to develop in the Phillies clubhouse:

"It's like a family," he said, "but I wouldn't quite call it the average suburban family with a white picket fence."

Home is where heartbreak is

Remember when the Twins had the most lopsided home-field advantage in the majors? Well, it apparently had more to do with the team than its inflatable stadium.

The Twins have not had a losing record at the Metrodome since 1983, but currently have a four-game losing streak there and an 8-12 record.

A tale of two trades

While the Orioles continue to feel the negative after-effects of the deal that cost them Pete Harnisch, Steve Finley and Curt Schilling two years ago, the Yankees are celebrating the 1992 deal that netted them pitchers Melido Perez, Bob Wickman and Domingo Jean in exchange for second baseman Steve Sax. Perez won 13 games last year and ranked among the league leaders with a 2.87 ERA. Wickman is 10-1 since coming up late last season. And Jean is considered to be one of the top pitching prospects in the minor-league system.

Headline of the week

Headline in the Philadelphia Daily News after the Florida Marlins left 17 runners on base in a 10-3 loss to the Phillies:

"Marlin Strando."

Trivia quiz

What Baltimore player holds the major-league record for highest single-season batting average by a shortstop?

Inquiring minds want to know

Cubs first baseman Mark Grace has been linked romantically with "Northern Exposure" star Janine Turner, and his soon-to-be ex-wife Michelle has been seen around Hollywood with actor Ray Liotta, but Grace apparently has not allowed life in the tabloid lane to affect his performance on the field.

Through last night, Grace was batting .342 and had hit safely in 18 of his past 20 games, all at a time when he's going through a contentious and expensive divorce. "Does it look like it's bothering me?" Grace said. "I just play and have fun out there."

Getting some respect

The California Angels might look like an early season flash in the pan, but they are not being taken lightly by the first-place Chicago White Sox -- as evidenced by Frank Thomas' response when someone asked if the Angels were developing into a contender.

"The Angels are a contender right now," Thomas said. "They have a bunch of no-name players who play their butts off. Sometimes it's better to have a bunch of no-names than a team full of superstars."

No doubt, there are plenty of Mets fans who would be quick to agree.

Trivia answer

If you knew the answer to this one off the top of your head, you've been spending way too much time listening to Phil Wood. The record for highest single-season batting average by a shortstop is held by Hughie Jennings, who hit .401 in 130 games for Baltimore's National League franchise in 1896.

STAT ATTACK

* The A's entered the weekend hitless in their past 21 bases-loaded plate appearances, going 0-for-16 with two walks and three sacrifice flies.

* The Angels apparently have settled on a stopper. Right-hander Joe Grahe had been successful in his last three save opportunities before Friday and had given up just one hit over 6 1/3 innings since May 8.

* The Astros did not have history on their side when they opened a weekend series in San Diego on Friday. They had won 10 of their previous 54 at Jack Murphy Stadium, dating to the beginning of the 1987 season.

* In an eight-game stretch that ended last week, Tigers' Alan Trammell started at shortstop once, third once, center field once and left field three times.

* Entering the weekend, the Minnesota Twins had been outscored 51-8 in the seventh inning.

* In a four-game stretch last week, the Twins bullpen gave up 19 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings (11.15 ERA).

* Oakland outfielder Ruben Sierra is hitting .297 (30-for-101) when Mark McGwire is in the starting lineup and .133 (6-for-45) when he isn't.

* Yankees starting pitchers entered the weekend with a 16-10 record and a 3.38 ERA. The only AL rotation with a better combined ERA is the Boston Red Sox (3.34). Yankees relievers, however, are 7-7 with a 5.89. That ERA ranks last among AL bullpens.

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