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West/East AL compass turns 180*

Maybe it's fallout from the strike. Maybe it's just a bad year for the so-called experts. Or maybe it's just one of those curiosities that will be forgotten come October.

Whatever the reason, the predicted power structure in the American League is standing squarely on its head. The supposedly weak AL West is -- by far -- the winningest division in baseball and many of the supposed beasts of the East are floundering after the first month of play.

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All four teams in the West are at least two games over .500, the first time that those four clubs have been at least two games above sea level at the same time since April 23, 1991. Each finished the strike-shortened 1994 season at least 10 games below .500, cementing the West's reputation as baseball's weakest division.

Nevertheless, the first-place California Angels -- picked to finish last by just about everyone -- are the winningest team in the American League and the last-place Seattle Mariners would be in second place in either of the other two AL divisions.

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"I really don't understand why everyone picked us last," said Angels assistant GM Tim Mead, "especially after we signed last year's major-league save leader [Lee Smith]."

! Don't rub it in.

AL Central

Minnesota outfielder Kirby Puckett collected his 1,000th career RBI in Friday's game against Texas, but the Twins continue to collect losses at a league-leading pace. The more that keeps up, the more room there will be for speculation that Puckett will get his 1,100th RBI in an Orioles uniform. . . . The Chicago White Sox designated third baseman Chris Sabo for assignment and added John Kruk to their roster, but the move didn't have an immediate impact on the club's chemistry. The Sox are vying with the Orioles for the Underachieving Team of the Year award, and it doesn't help that their cross-town rivals -- the Cubs -- are on top of the NL Central.

AL East

Panic in New York. The Yankees were 0-for-the-week before winning yesterday's series finale in Oakland to climb back into second place in a division they are supposed to win. The situation has become so dire that fans are welcoming predictable New York media speculation that Darryl Strawberry will sign with the club when he completes his 60-day drug suspension in late June. It could happen, but look for the %J slumping Yanks to be winning by then, which would make such a move foolhardy. . . . It was good reading, but a report that Boston manager Kevin Kennedy had considered converting injured pitching ace Roger Clemens into a closer was too ridiculous to warrant any serious reaction. Kennedy still is trying to live down the day he let Jose Canseco pitch relief in Texas. He certainly isn't going to take any chances with one of the best starters in the game.

NL West

San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn tumbled down the batting ranks during a rare slump last week, going 2-for-21 before snapping out of it with three hits yesterday. His average dropped to (gasp!) .309. . . . The Padres would be one of the surprise teams if not for their 3-9 road record. They'll get a chance to improve on it when they arrive at tourist-friendly Shea Stadium today for a three-game series with the New York Mets.

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NL Central

The Cubs may be flying high, but a disharmonic convergence could knock them out of first this week. The Cincinnati Reds just reeled off a 7-0 week and the Atlanta Braves roll into Wrigley for a two-game series that starts today. . . . Pittsburgh starter Paul Wagner is no Anthony Young. He went nearly a year without a victory as a starter before defeating Colorado on Friday, but fell well short of Young's record string of 27 losses. Wagner was 0-8 with a 7.40 ERA. . . . On deck: St. Louis pitcher Danny Jackson, who is 0-6 with a 7.39 ERA. He's on a pace to lose 29 games.

NL East

Where do the Montreal Expos keep finding these guys? Starting pitcher Carlos Perez is the latest Expos minor-league prospect to make good in a hurry, reeling off four straight victories to open his first major-league season. Don't be surprised if he gets lost on the way to the ballpark, however. Carlos is the brother of former major-league pitcher Pascual Perez, who was known as much for his exploits behind the wheel as his performance on the mound. Perez is one of five brothers to play professional baseball, including current Yankees pitcher Melido Perez. . . . The one thing you won't find at Blockbuster is a Florida Marlins highlight video. The dead fish dropped to 7-22 yesterday, which means their winning percentage fell below .250 -- the standings equivalent of the Mendoza line. The worst winning percentage in modern baseball history was recorded by the 1916 Philadelphia A's, who went 36-117 for a .235 mark.



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