Indians-Angels for AL flag? Think again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The drama in the two-game series between California and Cleveland last week, Angels first baseman J. T. Snow said, was like the seventh game of a World Series.

Albert Belle hit a grand slam off Lee Smith, and "when Albert was up," Snow said, "it was unbelievable. I've never experienced that much noise and intensity in baseball. It was unbelievable."

Sounds like a perfect matchup for the American League Championship Series, eh? Well, it won't happen that way.

If the season were to end today, the Angels and Indians would play -- in the first round of the playoffs, in the best-of-five series, with Cleveland the host of Games 1 and 2, and California host of Games 3, 4, and 5. Texas would play Boston, with the Red Sox host of Games 3, 4, and 5.

The reason is that the playoff format is predetermined, and this year, the teams from the AL East and AL West get home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Rangers, who would be the wild-card team, can't play a team within their division in the first round, so they must play the Red Sox, because Cleveland, the Central leader, must play on the road in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the playoffs.

When October rolls around, this issue will be rehashed, called an injustice. In effect, Cleveland would get no reward for having the best record in the AL during the regular season, beyond a playoff bid. But the purist sentiments that prevail here say tough: The playoff and World Series format has long been predetermined. The NL is host of the first two and last two games of the World Series in the even-numbered years, and the AL is host in odd-numbered years.

If Cleveland is truly the best team, and right now it looks as if the Indians are, they'll find a way to win, home-field advantage or not.

Gwynn wants Padres stability

Padres president Larry Lucchino and general manager Randy Smith are mixing like oil and water, leading to much speculation in and around San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium that Smith's option for 1996 won't be exercised.

Last week, Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn stumped for Smith and manager Bruce Bochy.

"We need some stability," Gwynn said. "You've got a manager and a GM on a one-year deal and I think both of them are doing a good job. There is a good foundation here for a solid organization. The job Bochy has done, the job Randy has done, gets lost in all the shuffle because of all the speculation about the trades. Give our manager a break. Give our GM a break. Let them be rewarded for the job they've done."

Lucchino said Smith's status will be addressed in due time.

Reds get better of deal

Cincinnati's eight-player deal with the San Francisco Giants on Friday enabled the Reds to get the starting pitcher they need (Mark Portugal) to replace Jose Rijo, who may be out for the season.

Darren Lewis, acquired from the Giants in the deal, is a better center fielder than the traded Deion Sanders, whose recovery from a severe ankle sprain has been slow.

Reds GM Jim Bowden is generally disliked in baseball circles, but his aggressiveness is admired.

Bowden recognized that Sanders meant more to the Giants than he would for any other team -- because of Sanders' potential return to the 49ers as an NFL free agent -- and playing that hand enabled Bowden to address his team's problems.

The Chicago Cubs continue to play miserably at Wrigley Field, where they are 14-23.

They lost to the New York Mets, 12-3, on Tuesday, and afterward, manager Jim Riggleman tore into the team. "I felt our play was disgraceful," he said. "The fans deserved to have us put on a better show."

The Cubs' front office, by the way, arranged for the cancer-stricken mother of Mets center fielder Brett Butler to attend the games Monday and Tuesday in a sky box.

"That was nice of them," Butler said.

"My mother doesn't have much time left. Her dream was to see her son play at Wrigley Field and the Cubs granted it. They watched over her the whole time."

McGwire the next Walton?

The medical report on Oakland first baseman Mark McGwire, who left a game earlier last week after hurting one of his toes, was ominous.

His pain may be related to a prior heel injury that kept him out for most of two seasons.

His history is starting to sound a little like that of basketball player Bill Walton, whose foot injuries curtailed what should've been a brilliant pro career.

The Athletics say they have no idea when McGwire will be back in the lineup.

Should O's pursue Merced?

Orioles manager Phil Regan was, quite obviously, sending a message to the front office when he said his team needed another hitter to win the AL East.

The trouble is, there isn't a whole lot available on the open market, beyond the Mets' Bobby Bonilla and Toronto's Joe Carter.

Caving in and trading top outfield prospect Alex Ochoa would be a mistake, and so would dealing for Carter and absorbing his $6.5 million salary for next year.

A better gamble would be to pick up a cheaper player, such as Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Orlando Merced, who wouldn't cost you Ochoa and wouldn't cost you a lot of money. But Regan is right in this: The Orioles need to do something.

Cardinal sins

Lamenting is becoming a way of life with the St. Louis Cardinals in an awful season. Pitcher Danny Jackson tore up the visitors' clubhouse in Montreal last week.

"Everything was everywhere," said a clubhouse attendant. "You just write it off."

Later, Cardinals outfielder Ray Lankford ripped the club.

"I think a lot of guys are just content to be here," he said. "It's embarrassing to come out every day and take butt-whippings. . . . They might as well let the minor-league teams play. They can't do any worse. . . . Right now, some Little League team would

beat us. I wouldn't put money on it that we'd win."

Phillies' Hollins angry

Phillies first baseman Dave Hollins lost his regular job last week, and took the news well. Or maybe not. "Yeah, I'm angry," he said. "I hate to bring up my stats. . . . But I do lead this team in a few categories, like home runs and walks and on-base percentage and runs scored, which I thought was a big part of this game." Does he want out of Philly? "I wanted to stay in Philly," he said. "But I've learned this is a business. There's no loyalty at either end." Manager Jim Fregosi's explanation for his lineup changes last week: "I'd like to shake their [butts] up, to be very honest with you." Just a hunch, but the feeling here is the Phillies won't make the playoffs. . . . Seattle called up Alex Rodriguez, the first pick in the 1993 draft, on Friday. He was hitting .380 with 11 homers for Triple-A Tacoma. Former Orioles temp Matt Nokes, who hit .122 before getting dumped in June, has surfaced in the big leagues again, with Colorado. But he must produce; Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard is wary of Nokes' reputation as a poor defensive catcher. "He'll be able to catch all right," Gebhard said, "and if he doesn't, Jorge [Brito] or Jayhawk Owens or someone will be back. We're not locked in." . . . The Yankees and Athletics are discussing a trade of disgruntled outfielders -- Danny Tartabull for Ruben Sierra. . . . Texas slugger Juan Gonzalez has missed 43 of 193 games since signing a contract that could be worth $45.45 million over seven years. . . . Texas manager Johnny Oates said he had no grudges against the Orioles, his former employer. "I don't feel bad about anyone," he said. "They gave me a chance to manage. I wouldn't be here if they didn't. The only feeling I have that is not good is about one individual [Orioles owner Peter Angelos], who said some things I don't think were accurate."

White Sox need sorting

Minnesota Twins fans are bitter about their last-place team, but they should be heartened by the fact that they are not the Chicago White Sox; now that is a team in disarray. Last week, general manager Ron Schueler was quoted as saying that he had conceded the White Sox are out of contention. "I already have," he said. Later, Schueler said his comments were taken out of context. Sure. When Dave Righetti was called up from Triple-A Nashville to pitch for the White Sox in a doubleheader Tuesday, the first that manager Terry Bevington knew about Righetti's promotion was when Righetti appeared in the Chicago clubhouse. Very bad. . . . The San Francisco bullpen has been terrible this year. "When I go out to the mound," said Giants manager Dusty Baker, "People yell, 'Not him!' I feel like yelling back, 'Then who?' " . . . Remember how Texas pitcher Bob Tewksbury criticized the Indians for wearing unmatched uniforms during warm-ups? Inspired by this, the Indians presented Tewksbury with a team picture of a number of Indians wearing different colored uniforms and in relaxed poses. In the photo, Jose Mesa is blowing a bubble, Eddie Murray is wearing the left half of his blue uniform top and the right half of his white top. Herbert Perry is standing in the back row and waving. . . . Cleveland, incidentally, designated reliever Gregg Olson for assignment last week. The former Oriole was throwing hard but had trouble with his curveball. "This was no surprise," Olson said. "There was no future for me here. Nothing for me to do. I've got a couple of teams who say they're interested, so we'll see. If not, I'll try again next year."

Red Sox's Cumberland angry

Boston changed pitching coaches last week, giving John Cumberland what they called a leave of absence, and a team doctor let it slip that it was for medical reasons. That caught Cumberland by surprise, who has heard the rumors that the reason was too much drinking or tardiness. On the so-called medical problem: "That's pure bull. . . . I have no medical problem." On drinking: "I've heard that in the past couple of days, and I can say, without any doubt, that I do not have a drinking problem. In fact, I don't even drink anymore. I'm not saying I never drank because I did. But I don't drink now." On his supposed tardiness: "I always come to the ballpark early anyway because you go stir-crazy sitting in [an] apartment or sitting in a hotel room. I never ignored my duties as pitching coach of this team." The new Boston coach is Al Nipper, close friend of pitcher Roger Clemens. . . . The Dodgers have five All-Stars, a pitching staff that ranks second to the Atlanta Braves', and they can't seem to win. Tom Lasorda, one of two managers the club has employed since 1954, is catching heat. "It's one of those things that they've got to blame somebody," Lasorda said, "and it might as well be the managers. That's the hazards of the job."

Thanks for nothing

Before San Francisco played Houston last weekend, Giants manager Baker called the road clubhouse in Cleveland and asked for Oakland's Dave Stewart. Baker wanted Stewart to talk with struggling Giants reliever Jose Bautista about how to grip the forkball. Baker put the former Oriole on the line, and the two pitchers discussed the intricacies of the pitch, and Bautista said the conversation really helped. Later that night, Baker called on Bautista to pitch to the Astros, and the first batter he faced, Dave Magadan, barely missed a grand slam, rocketing a ball off the wall. In the ninth inning, Houston's Craig Shipley and Jeff Bagwell hit homers off Bautista. Stewart should probably keep his night job.

THE NUMBERS GAME

* The St. Louis Cardinals have had a total of eight homers from their first and third basemen this year, or four less than Jeff Manto.

* The Cleveland Indians are 14-1 when Albert Belle hits a homer.

* Tough week for Giants closer Rod Beck. On July 15, he entered a tie game in the eighth and lost. On Sunday, he relieved with the Giants ahead by a run and blew a save in the eighth, and when he had a chance for a victory in the ninth, he allowed the tying run to force extra innings. On Monday, he entered the game in the eighth with the Giants up by two runs, and after six hTC runs had scored, he departed in the same inning. O-for-3.

* Houston closer Todd Jones, who has not pitched more than 75 innings in a season since 1990, has thrown 60 innings already and blew two saves last week.

* The Indians have only 7,939 unsold tickets for the rest of their home games.

* Define Cy Young winner: The Seattle Mariners are 15-2 when Randy Johnson starts, 22-37 in all other games.

* Florida third baseman Terry Pendleton made six errors in his first 63 games, and then five in four games during the last week.

* Texas pitcher Kevin Gross, with a 7.37 ERA, has a shot at having the highest ERA of any pitcher qualifying for the ERA title in history. The record is 7.71, by the Phillies' Lester Sweetland in 1930.

* Making his major-league debut Monday against the Cubs, super Mets prospect Jason Isringhausen retired the first 10 and last 10 batters he faced.

* When Brett Butler had four-hit games on Tuesday and Wednesday, he became the first Met to do that since Jim Hickman, in 1964.

* From June 26 to July 17, the Philadelphia Phillies went from five games ahead of the Atlanta Braves to 6.5 games behind.

The Powers That Be in baseball set up the three-division format to foster pennant races for more teams. One question: What pennant races?

Division, Comment

AL East, OK, no doubt, these are the Red Sox and they're bound to falter. The big question is, who's going to catch them? (Especially if O's don't get Bobby Bo.)

AL Central, The Indians in a runaway.

AL West, Angels are starting to creep away from the Rangers, and may soon add another pitcher. Face it, Texas has overachieved.

NL East, Somebody was seen pulling a white sheet over the Phillies this week. Could've been Atlanta's Greg Maddux.

NL Central, With the addition of Mark Portugal, the Reds got the pitcher they needed without hurting their offense.

NL West, The Rockies have the biggest home field advantage in baseball, and the Dodgers, Padres and Giants are choking.

At least the also-rans have a shot at a wildcard spot this year. The wildcard standings, through Thursday's games:

=3AL Team .. .. .. .. .. .. Record .. ... ... ... GB

Texas .. .. .. .. ... ... 42-36 ... ... ... ... -

Milwaukee .. .. .. .. ... 40-37 ... ... ... ... 1 1/2

Orioles .. .. .. .. .. .. 38-39 ... ... ... ... 3 1/2

Seattle .. .. .. .. .. .. 38-40 ... ... ... ... 4

Kansas City .. .. ... ... 36-39 .. .. .. .. ... 4 1/2

NL Team .. .. .. .. .. .. Record .. .. .. .. GB

Houston .. .. .. .. .. .. 43-33 .. ... .. .. -

Philadelphia .. .. ... .. 42-36 .. ... .. .. 1 1/2

Los Angeles .. .. ... ... 39-39 .. .. ... .. 4 1/2

Montreal .. .. .. ... ... 39-40 .. .. .. ... 5

Chicago .. .. .. .. .. .. 38-41 .. .. ... .. 6

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