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With DH, AL letters in offense


PITTSBURGH -- It is different now. The All-Star Game used to be the only chance that some high-profile players ever got to see their counterparts from the other league in person, but nearly 20 years of free agency have blurred a line that was once hard to cross.

Now, so many players have appeared in both leagues that the sense of rivalry that once existed is all but gone. But the differences between the leagues may be more pronounced than ever.

The American League has become a pitcher's nightmare, particularly in a season of such offensive volatility that the construction of the baseball and the size of the strike zone both have come under intense scrutiny.

It isn't just Ken Griffey or The Big Hurt. It is a top-to-bottom difference in offensive depth and a dramatic change in the environment that has altered the nature of the game in the American League.

"You've got some ballparks where the ball just flies out," said All-Star first baseman Will Clark, who spent his entire career in the National League before signing a rich, five-year contract with the Texas Rangers last winter. "And with the offense that some of those teams are fielding, you're never out of a game."

True enough, the opening of three new, hitter-friendly ballparks during the past two years has had a significant effect, but the major reason for the different look of the American League remains the designated hitter rule. It always has had a measurable impact on offensive production and a negative effect on pitching statistics, and that has been magnified by the talent-thinning impact of expansion.

"Who would you rather face -- Frank Thomas on his day off or a pitcher with a .130 lifetime batting average?" said NL All-Star starter Greg Maddux.

"I don't know what the average DH drives in, but it would have to be about 80 runs. I know that a pitcher who has a good year [at the plate] drives in about five."

The typical National League lineup has the pitcher hitting ninth and may sacrifice another spot in the lineup for a defensive specialist at a key position. In the American League, the emphasis is more clearly focused on offensive production.

"The DH changes a lot of things," said California Angels DH Chili Davis, an AL All-Star. "I think the National League still has to manufacture runs. They play the game the way it has always been played."

That's why it is such a shock for some pitchers who go over to the American League. Detroit Tigers starter Tim Belcher, a non-All-Star who was in town for Monday's union meeting, has had to adjust his expectations since arriving in the AL.

"I've resigned myself to that," he told a reporter from Booth Newspapers. "I no longer get upset if I go four or five innings and give up three runs."

In the other league, the absence of the DH rule means softer lineups and shorter outings for starting pitchers.

It stands to reason that those pitchers will be stronger from start to start and will -- because of the lower level of competition -- appear more overpowering. Hence the greater emphasis on defense and fundamentals.

"If I pitched in the American League, I don't think my ERA would be as good," said Maddux, who leads the NL with a 1.80 ERA, "but I think my won-lost record might be better, because you aren't going to be taken out for a pinch hitter."

Perhaps, but he might be surprised at how much tougher it is to face a lineup of nine solid hitters after dominating a league in which many teams have only seven and some have even less than that.

"It's a different league," Belcher said, "but I never imagined it would be this different."

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