Indians have cut power, but are better than ever

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Cleveland Indians don't abuse opposing teams like they did last year, when they had Carlos Baerga hitting third and Jim Thome batting seventh or, sometimes, eighth in the lineup. They're not as capable of scoring 20 runs in a game; their offense isn't as dynamic as it was in 1995.

They might win 100 games in this 162-game season after going 100-44 in 1995.

But, believe it or not, the Indians are a better team than they were last year; much better equipped for the demands of postseason play; more capable of beating the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. General manager John Hart was the target of much criticism for trading Baerga to the New York Mets, but, with a week to go in the season, the Indians are the best team in baseball.

"We feel better about our club," said Dan O'Dowd, the Indians' assistant general manager. "After last year, we sat down and talked about our club and made some serious, objective observations: We had about four or five guys in our lineup who could be pitched to in the playoffs by good staffs."

In other words, young sluggers such as Manny Ramirez were capable of bashing homers against mediocre pitching, but when the Indians ran up against a Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine, when the opposing pitcher was having a good night, Cleveland's lineup wasn't capable of banging out two or three singles and scoring a run or two.

The bunches of home runs were great in July and August, but the Indians needed somebody who could hit good pitching in October, and they signed Julio Franco in the off-season.

And Cleveland's defense wasn't good enough to compete in low-scoring games often decided by an error or a play that wasn't made.

Baerga had a great offensive year for the Indians in 1995, but he lacked range. Indians pitchers, seeing balls roll past Baerga, privately hoped the team would get another second baseman. It did, trading for Jose Vizcaino, who isn't going to be an All-Star and won't make anybody forget Baerga's offensive ability. But he has good range, relative to Baerga, and strengthens the pitching staff.

The Indians have had trouble with left-handed starters in the past, and, like the Orioles, they added a right-handed hitter shortly before the midnight deadline for acquiring players for the postseason roster -- Kevin Seitzer, one of the toughest hitters in the American League, particularly in clutch situations.

Last week, the Indians faced Chicago White Sox ace Alex Fernandez, and O'Dowd, sitting in the stands behind home plate, remembers thinking in the first or second inning how good Fernandez's stuff looked to him.

"But our guys made adjustments against him and we beat him," O'Dowd said, reciting a series of ball-strike counts and how hitters -- good, professional hitters such as Franco, Albert Belle and Seitzer -- reacted, punching hits to the opposite field, sometimes when they were behind in the count.

"We have guys capable of hitting a guy like that, on a day when he was throwing pretty well," said O'Dowd.

They have better right-handed balance, Franco and Seitzer and Belle offsetting left-handed-hitting Thome and Kenny Lofton. They have a much stronger and deeper bench, an improvement that might come into play should the Indians reach the World Series and play without the designated hitter.

Instead of Ruben Amaro and Wayne Kirby coming off the bench to pinch hit, they'll have Brian Giles and Jeff Kent, who can do some damage in certain matchups.

They've got good starting pitching, with Orel Hershiser, Charles Nagy and Chad Ogea, and Jack McDowell has thrown better in his past two outings. "I tell people we signed Jack for $4.8 million," O'Dowd said. "Eight hundred thousand of that is for the first four months of the season and $4 million is for August, September and October."

The one area where the Indians aren't quite as strong is in their bullpen. Julian Tavarez had a great year in 1995, but he has fallen off this season. Paul Shuey has picked up some of that slack, compiling a 2.98 ERA in 39 games.

"We should still be considered the team to beat [in the AL]," said Hart, "because we're the defending champs. We feel we have a World Series-caliber team. But now it's up to the players."

For Leyland, time to go

Jim Leyland is leaving Pittsburgh, and who can blame him? The Pirates already have traded Denny Neagle, and general manager Cam Bonifay has told other teams that the Pirates must slash their payroll to $10 million, or about one-fifth of the Orioles'. Bonifay has been told he must move shortstop Jay Bell and his $4 million salary, even if he must swap a prospect along with Bell just so another team will absorb Bell's contract.

The word is that Leyland is headed to Florida to join his old friend, Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski. There are good reasons for the Yankees to prefer that the Orioles make the playoffs instead of Seattle. New York beat the Orioles in 10 of 13 this year, and the Yankees are 9-21 against the Mariners over the past two years, including playoff games.

Kevin Mitchell, AWOL. What else is new?

The Cardinals and Chicago Cubs got into a scrap Thursday when Andy Benes drilled Brian McRae on the backside with a pitch, after several St. Louis players had been hit by pitches. Remember the dictum of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa: For every one of ours who gets hit by a pitch, hit two of theirs.

Seitzer, a longtime member of the second-division Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals, loves everything about being in a pennant race. "I've had to explain to my wife [Lisa] what the magic number means," Seitzer said, "and how you whittle it down. This is awesome. This is the first time I've ever had to worry about magic numbers."

That empty feeling

George Brett, who watched Paul Molitor bang out career hit No. 3,000 last week, was mortified that Kauffman Stadium was virtually empty on Molitor's special night. "The worst thing that could have happened was that 5,000 people were here to watch it," Brett said. "It's embarrassing we couldn't get more people to come watch a great player who spent his whole career in the American League." With all due respect, Mr. Brett: Win a few games and that will change.

Kansas City manager Bob Boone is among those rumored to be a candidate for the California managing job.

Draft woes

The Braves have consistently churned out top prospects in the past 10 years, but they've had tough luck with their top draft picks the last couple of seasons. Catcher Eric Munson, their No. 2 pick this year, enrolled at the University of Southern California, meaning Atlanta can no longer sign him. Their No. 1 pick, A. J. Sapp, hit .149 with 58 strikeouts in 49 minor-league games. Their No. 1 pick last year, Chad Hutchinson, passed up a Braves offer to play quarterback for Stanford, and Jim Scharrer, their No. 2 pick in '95, hit .227 with 74 whiffs in 62 games.

After Hideo Nomo no-hit the Colorado Rockies, he and his interpreter stopped by a Denver 7-Eleven store to get a bag of chips and a soda. The patrons in the store began chanting his name, and Nomo wound up signing napkins, burrito wrappers and tissue paper.

What's in a deadline?

Jerry Colangelo, owner of the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, has noted a trend in the labor talks in his short time as a member of the Major League Baseball fraternity. "It seems in baseball," he said, "deadlines and dates are certainly not intended to be."

The marketing department of the Texas Rangers came up with an ad campaign with the slogan, "The Hunt for Red October," and somebody mentioned to the folks responsible that this was a blatant ripoff of the book by Tom Clancy, an Orioles minority owner. So the Rangers added the disclaimer that " 'The Hunt for Red October' is a novel by Tom Clancy." Catchy.

By the numbers

* Before Hideo Nomo threw his no-hitter against the Rockies, he had made two starts at Coors Field, with these results: 18 hits and six walks and 12 runs in 9 2/3 innings.

* Colorado's Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette will become the first teammates since Boston's Walt Dropo and Vern Stephens in 1950 to drive in 140 runs apiece.

* The Rockies aren't going to make the playoffs, but they'll be the first team in history to hit 200 or more homers and steal 200 or more bases.

* The Cleveland Indians are the third team in history to have three players -- Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez -- with 30 homers and 100 RBIs. The others are the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers (Ben Oglivie, Cecil Cooper and Gorman Thomas) and the 1996 Seattle Mariners (Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez and Jay Buhner). The Orioles will have three, if Bobby Bonilla (28) can reach 30 homers.

* Before beating Toronto on Wednesday, the Milwaukee Brewers were 0-69 when trailing after eight innings.

* Eighteen of Houston's last 19 homers have been bases-empty shots.

* Minnesota's Chuck Knoblauch is four stolen bases away from his career high of 46.

* Alex Rodriguez's 88th extra-base hit of the year last week broke Robin Yount's record for shortstops. Yount had 87 in 1982.

* Shortstop Kevin Elster has appeared in 150 games for the Texas Rangers this year. From 1991 to 1996, he appeared in 164 major-league games.

Wild-card rules

How to determine the matchups for the first round of the American League playoffs:

The Central and West champions will have home-field advantage.

The better record of the Central and West champions will play the wild card.

If the wild card comes from the Central or West, it will play the champion not in its division.

The Central and West champions will not meet.

Scenarios

If the wild card is from the East, it would play the team with the best record between the Central and West champions. The East champion would play the other division champion.

If the wild card is from the Central, it would play the West champion. The East champion would play the Central champion.

If the wild card is from the West, it would play the Central champion. The West champ would play the East champion.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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