Poor pitching accelerates Athletics' slide from top of the AL West

Going into the weekend, they were last in the American League West, had the league's worst batting average (.243) and third-worst ERA (4.89), yet many still considered the Oakland Athletics to be contenders.

But those expectations may be based more on the reputation of manager Tony La Russa than realism. Although only 6 1/2 games separated them from the lead, the five teams between the A's and the first-place Kansas City Royals present a much bigger challenge.


Despite their offensive problems -- only the Orioles had scored fewer runs (200) than Oakland (211) -- the continued decline of their once-vaunted pitching staff has hurt the A's the most. That was the primary reason behind last year's trade that sent Jose Canseco to Texas for right-handers Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell and outfielder Ruben Sierra. Russell subsequently signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox.

The A's already had decided that Dave Stewart was finished or unaffordable and pitching coach Dave Duncan had long been infatuated by Witt's potential. Witt has done a good job, but the loss of Mike Moore to Detroit as a free agent put more pressure on the starting rotation. That Ron Darling has yet to post a win has further complicated matters.


Much has been made of Dennis Eckersley's early-season misfortunes, but the A's pitching woes extend beyond their ace closer, and control seems to be the common denominator. Through their first 48 games, the A's had issued a league-high 210 walks -- even though they had played the fewest number of games in the AL.

The A's offense, which has suffered from the loss of key role players over the past few years such as Tony Phillips (Tigers) and Mike Gallego (Yankees), figures to improve when Mark McGwire returns from the disabled list. But their young pitching prospects might not be close enough to help the staff this year.

Mariners' ship coming in?

At this point it would appear that any team in the AL West is capable of winning the division. As good a long-shot candidate as any could be the Seattle Mariners, who are winding up a three-game series at Camden Yards today.

Lou Piniella's team is in marked contrast to La Russa's because pitching has been the biggest surprise for the Mariners. They survived Chris Bosio's stint on the disabled list without serious damage and Randy Johnson has become an intimidating factor.

But the key, should the Mariners become the contenders many think they will be, might have occurred in spring training when Dave Fleming, Seattle's best pitcher last year, was forced to open the season on the disabled list.

Fleming's absence effectively took Erik Hanson off the trading block. A big disappointment last year, Hanson was shopped extensively last spring as the Mariners tried to unload his salary (in the $2 million range). But Hanson had an excellent spring and took a 5-2 record and the league's best ERA (1.96) into last night's game against the Orioles.

With Bosio healthy again, and Fleming joining Johnson and Hanson, the Mariners could end up with the best starting rotation in the league. They have a bona fide closer in Norm Charlton and possibly the AL's best player in Ken Griffey Jr. Third baseman Edgar Martinez, who has missed 43 games because of a hamstring injury, is back with one of the best bats in baseball.


Yankees dandy

The Yankees have just concluded back-to-back winning months for the first time in five years. The team also has to go back to 1988 for the last time George Steinbrenner's team has been as many as seven games over .500.

Buck Showalter has done a good job without Don Mattingly and Danny Tartabull, both on the disabled list. The Yankees may be the slowest team in baseball (they are last in the majors with 18 stolen bases), so creating runs is a major accomplishment.

The Yankees are third in the league in hitting (.276) but only eighth in pitching (4.10 ERA), mainly because of a defective bullpen. Still, they're hanging tough and getting production from their role players.

One of those is Gallego, who took his plea for playing time to Showalter after not starting in the first 17 games. Last week he appeared as the third baseman and leadoff hitter, both firsts for him this year.

"I'll hit first and I'll hit ninth," said Gallego. "I just don't want to hit 10th."


Jays are birds to watch

One man's prediction: If the Toronto Blue Jays get anything at all from Stewart and Jack Morris, they'll run away with the AL East. And they might do it even if the veteran right-handers don't produce.

Despite sub-par pitching (11th in the AL with a 4.89 ERA), the Blue Jays have quietly ignored all the hoopla surrounding the Tigers and pulled into a tie for first place through Friday night's games. Much has been made about the thunder in the Detroit lineup, but it is the Blue Jays who lead the majors in home runs (66 through Friday).

The Blue Jays still have the most overall talent in either division.

Delayed suspensions

Let's get this straight. Cleveland's Albert Belle charged the DTC mound to tangle with Kansas City's Hipolito Pichardo on May 13. He was to begin a three-game suspension while the Indians were in Baltimore three weeks ago, but was granted a stay pending an appeal, which was held while the Indians were in New York last week.


AL president Bobby Brown upheld his suspension, as is customary, and Belle was forced to sit out three games against the Twins this weekend. Not that the Indians can afford to be choosy, but too often players -- and teams -- are allowed to pick their spots with suspensions.

There would seem to be a way to simplify these situations. When a player is suspended, why not make him sit out against the team involved in the altercation?


The recent spat between Cincinnati left-hander Tom Browning and Reds' 32-year-old general manager Jim Bowden brings attention to one of the dangers of incentive clauses in player contracts. Browning has a clause that automatically renews his contract if he pitches 200 innings.

He has accused Bowden, whom he refered to as the "boy wonder," of dictating his early removal from games he has started. The most notable came in new manager Davey Johnson's first game with the Reds.

Browning was pulled after five innings, despite being locked in a 0-0 duel with Atlanta's John Smoltz. Needless to say, he wasn't happy, and said as much.


Most managers insist on not being told of contract incentives, but in situations like this players have a difficult time believing that management doesn't make the facts known.

The best?

Miami Westminster High School shortstop Alex Rodriguez, the first player picked in Thursday's amateur free-agent draft, is already under the gun. He's being touted as perhaps the best player since the draft was instituted in 1965.

"I've been here nine years and he is the best I've ever seen," said Kevin Malone, scouting director of the Montreal Expos. "He's a five-tool player."

The Mariners, who struck gold with Griffey in 1987, drafted Rodriguez, who is 6 feet 3 and 190 pounds.

Looking good


Kevin McGehee, the right-hander the Orioles obtained from San Francisco for Luis Mercedes, has made a good first impression. McGehee pitched a complete game, 2-1 win for Triple-A Rochester over Charlotte last Wednesday night, improving his record to 2-0 with a 1.85 ERA.

"That was a real good acquisition," said Rochester manager Bob Miscik, whose team is in first place in the International League's Eastern Division.

"What I like best about him," said catcher Mark Parent, "is that he gets the ball and he throws it. He doesn't fool around."

McGehee is not overpowering but has one of those loose deliveries that gives the impression the ball jumps out of his hand. He also appears to have a good knowledge of his craft.

"He wasn't afraid to come inside against our left-handed hitters," said Charlotte manager Charlie Manuel. "And from the seventh inning on, he really looked like he wanted it. I liked what I saw."