L.A. plays Dodger ball just in time


The Dodgers have done it again. Despite a season-long battle just to play .500 ball, they again have displayed an incredible sense of timing by assuring themselves of first place on the day the players are scheduled to go out on strike. The last time there was a lengthy work stoppage during the season, it was the Dodgers who parlayed the second-best NL West record into a World Series title with the help of a split-season format that awarded them half of the division title. That probably won't happen here, but if the players return to work in mid-September, don't be surprised if the owners devise another hybrid playoff scheme to recoup the gate receipts lost during the strike. . . . Matt Williams hit his 42nd home run in the Giants' 111th game Saturday. At that rate, he would finish a 162-game schedule with 61 home runs. Of course, he probably isn't going to get that opportunity.

NL Central

The second chapter in baseball's strike victimology. Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell drove in his 116th run yesterday, which put him on a pace to drive in 168 runs over a full season. That would be the highest total in the National League since Hack Wilson drove in 190 in 1930. As it is, Bagwell set Astros single-season records for home runs, RBI and extra base hits Friday. . . . Kevin Mitchell put the hammer on the San Francisco Giants Wednesday, leading the Cincinnati Reds to a 17-4 victory and a series sweep that cost the Giants a chance to overtake the struggling Dodgers in the NL West. Mitchell had a career-high five hits and five RBI against the team that gave up on him three years ago. His overall numbers -- .328 average, 30 home runs, 76 RBI -- are part of the reason the Reds are leading the NL Central.

NL East

There is little question that Greg Maddux is the pre-eminent starting pitcher in baseball, but he continues to drive home that notion and justify the big contract the Atlanta Braves gave him a couple of years ago. He threw eight scoreless innings Saturday to improve his record to 15-6 and drop his ERA to 1.63. He might be one player who will benefit from a lengthy strike, which would assure him of becoming the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award three years running. His ERA is at least a run better than any other regular starting pitcher. . . . The Montreal Expos have won 17 of their past 19 games, which can mean only one thing to Braves fans: Thank God for realignment. The Braves may have to play second fiddle to the Expos in the regular season, but they have the pitching staff to dominate the National League playoffs -- if it ever comes to that.

AL West

The Seattle Mariners apparently are beginning to enjoy their 30-game road trip, which is the longest by any team since the Philadelphia Athletics played 32 road games in 26 days in 1935. The Mariners went 5-1 last week, not including a victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in the Hall of Fame exhibition game. They also broke the Kansas City Royals' 14-game winning streak. If a strike is averted, the law of averages might be enough to carry the hapless Mariners back into contention in the lifeless AL West.

AL Central

Talk about a team with a mission. The Royals obviously realized the urgency of the labor situation, reeling off 14 victories to pull within arm's reach of a wild-card berth. The AL Central was a two-team race two weeks ago, but the Royals are back in the running -- if not to take advantage of the labor stoppage, then to be in excellent position to steal the division race if the season is resumed. . . . Minnesota Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek begins what may be his final series at the Metrodome tonight, when the club plays the first of three games against the Boston Red Sox. Hrbek announced he will retire at the end of the season, but the tentative strike may make it impossible for the club to give him an appropriate send-off.

AL East

Too little, too late. That's the only way to describe the burst of great pitching that carried the Orioles' starting rotation to four shutouts in six games after going 139 games without one. The Orioles have four games left before the strike deadline, and they are 2 1/2 games out of the wild-card hunt. . . . The first official act of new AL president Gene Budig was to uphold the five-day suspension outgoing president Bobby Brown imposed on Red Sox manager Butch Hobson. Hobson had appealed the ban, for excessive physical contact with the umpires June 28, but video replays reviewed by the league office did not exonerate him. . . . There was no champagne on ice when the Yankees clinched the Aug. 12 division title last week, but there will be if the season resumes. Every day the players stay out is like a victory for the Yankees once the season is resumed.

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