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Run-happy year isn't just expansion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The latest expansion brought with it predictions of pitching peril that would -- depending on whom you talked to -- lead to the first 75-homer season, the dawn of the five-hour nine-inning game and the end of the baseball world as we know it.

Of course, that was ridiculous. There isn't enough good pitching to hold Mark McGwire to just 75 home runs; it will always be possible to play nine innings in under 4 1/2 hours, and the end of the baseball world as we know it came in 1994.

The second expansion of the 1990s has had the predicted impact on the level of pitching talent across the major leagues, but it has turned out to be only one of several factors that have contributed to an apparent upsurge in offensive production -- everywhere but Camden Yards.

The dilution of pitching talent has caused an offensive uptick in every expansion year and 1998 probably will be no different, but the situation has been aggravated by the underachievement of many of baseball's top-quality pitchers.

Consider:

The Orioles were supposed to have one of the deepest rotations in the American League, but they have had to put Mike Mussina on the disabled list twice and have lost both Scott Kamieniecki and Jimmy Key to injuries during the first two months of play.

The Seattle Mariners have developed baseball's first nuclear bullpen and still are trying to figure out what's gone wrong with pitching ace Randy Johnson and No. 3 starter Jamie Moyer.

The expansion Arizona Diamondbacks could be expected to have an expansion-quality pitching staff, but their four top starters -- all of whom would be in major-league rotations even if this were not an expansion year -- were a combined 8-24 heading into yesterday.

The starting rotation of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which was thought to be second only to the Atlanta Braves' in the National League, went into yesterday a combined 19-21.

The NL East favorite St. Louis Cardinals still are awaiting the return of injured Alan Benes and have gotten only small contributions from banged-up starters Donovan Osborne and Matt Morris.

Several other top starters around the majors, including Alex Fernandez, John Smoltz, Dwight Gooden, Kevin Appier and Ben McDonald, have been out for all or part of the season because of injuries.

It's no wonder there are six players on pace to hit more than 55 home runs and two players on pace to shatter Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record (190).

Factor in the addition of two more hitter-friendly ballparks and the environment has never been more conducive to the destruction of some of baseball's most hallowed offensive records.

McGwire: Why not?

Not that it would be such a bad thing if McGwire knocked Roger Maris out of the record book. Maris had an incredible season in 1961, but he had one of the most-feared power hitters in history batting behind him and never had to worry about being walked intentionally with the bases empty in the late innings -- something that happened to McGwire just the other night.

McGwire might be -- swing for swing -- the greatest power hitter in the history of the game. The record, as much as he denies that it is particularly important to him, would establish that, even though his opportunity to make an assault on the all-time home run record was scuttled by injuries during the early 1990s.

Fox hunt

Several baseball owners were concerned that the approval of media mogul Rupert Murdoch as owner of the Dodgers would irrevocably alter the balance of power in the National League West. Now, it appears, those fears were not unwarranted.

The Dodgers have shown little regard for the size of their payroll with the acquisitions of Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and -- if the latest rumored deal turns out to be real -- Randy Johnson. The result could be a super team that dominates the NL West for the next several years, or another object lesson for the multimillionaires who are running the sport.

The Orioles already have proved that huge expenditures don't guarantee success, but the Dodgers are in a better position to make their money talk. They have put together a much younger group of superstars and -- unlike the Orioles -- they have a deep minor-league system to go with it.

Reverse lock

The Toronto Blue Jays are the worst offensive team in the American League. Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez might be the best pitcher in the world.

Reverse lock. Advantage Blue Jays.

The Jays hit three homers and and handed Martinez his first defeat of the season on Monday. Toronto, despite the worst combined batting average in the AL, touched up Martinez for 12 hits over 7 2/3 innings to continue a weeklong offensive upsurge.

"To be honest, I think we caught Pedro on a little bit of an off day," said former teammate Darrin Fletcher, who went 3-for-4 against a guy he caught for five years in Montreal. "One, his stuff wasn't as dominating and, two, he was going up against a pretty hot team. Two, three starts a year, you might catch him like that. Like all the great ones, sometimes you've got a chance to get him."

The other Bash Brother

McGwire's amazing early-season performance has obscured the comeback of former Bash Brother Jose Canseco, who entered yesterday third in the American League with 17 home runs.

Canseco told reporters in Toronto recently that he is "trying to become the player I used to be," and he's doing a pretty good imitation of the old Jose. His average is climbing and he is playing respectably in the outfield. If he can avoid another bout with back problems, he could be on his way to a 40-homer, 100-RBI season.

What a bargain that would be for the Jays, who got the oft-injured superstar for a tiny guarantee ($500,000) and will pay him a total of only $2,125,000 if he reaches all his incentive plateaus.

More Orel surgery

It happens every spring. Right-hander Orel Hershiser gets off to a terrible start in April and everyone wonders if this is the year that age finally persuades him to take that broadcasting gig.

Hershiser went 0-3 with a 5.45 ERA in April, leaving the San Francisco Giants to wonder whether they had made a big mistake bringing him back to the National League. But he has turned things around in May, entering yesterday's scheduled start with a 4-0 record this month and a 1.00 ERA.

He did essentially the same thing in each of the previous two seasons, with the Cleveland Indians.

"I'm a hot-streak, cold-streak type of guy," Hershiser said. "You hope the hot streaks last and the cold streaks don't."

Short-sheeted

Philadelphia Phillies ace Curt Schilling may be on pace for 350 strikeouts, but he's also on pace for a .500 won-lost record. He's just 5-5, in spite of his 2.58 ERA.

"Should I have a better record?" Schilling said the other day. "Sure. Who doesn't know that?"

Apparently, the Phillies' offense, which has scored two runs or fewer while he has been on the mound in nine of his 12 starts this season.

Who's next?

VTC

The Phillies will have the No. 1 pick in Tuesday's draft, and hope to have better luck signing University of Miami third baseman Pat Burrell.

J. D. Drew, the Phillies' 1997 first-round choice who held out all year in the hope of getting a $10 million deal, could find himself right back where he started if he is taken by the Oakland Athletics with the second overall choice.

The A's are very unlikely to meet agent Scott Boras' outrageous demands, which could lead to another year in the independent Northern League for Drew, unless Boras can get the courts to declare him a free agent.

More Piazza speculation

The New York Mets apparently will wait until the smoke clears from the acquisition of superstar catcher Mike Piazza before trying to sign him to a long-term contract.

Club officials want to make sure that Piazza's apparent drawing power is not an aberration, and they obviously want to see if he makes a huge impact on the club's playoff potential before making him the highest-paid player in baseball history.

Manager Bobby Valentine thinks he'll have staying power on both counts.

"You could sense it from Saturday morning on here," Valentine told reporters. "Before Mike even walked through the door, there was a buzz in the clubhouse. As we got closer to the game, there was a buzz in the dugout. And then there was the buzz in the stands. I knew Saturday was going to be big when I pulled in at 10 in the morning.

"If this club stays healthy, I believe it's going to be a lasting buzz. The perception is that things have changed here. Now it is our job to make sure that perception becomes a reality."

If it does, Piazza just might get his $100 million after all.

"We didn't go into this blind," owner Fred Wilpon said soon after last week's deal. "We know what it'll cost to sign Mike."

Playing hard to get

NBA forward Mark Hendrickson of the Sacramento Kings signed a minor-league contract on Monday with the Blue Jays, who made him their 20th-round pick in last year's June draft.

Hendrickson is a 6-foot-9, 23-year-old left-hander out of Washington State, who was 0-2 with a 6.43 ERA in his final collegiate season. But he apparently has been on a lot of shopping lists over the past few years.

He had been chosen in each of the past six June amateur drafts -- twice by the pitching-savvy Braves -- before agreeing to report to the Blue Jays' extended spring training program for assignment.

The contract allows him to continue his NBA career, but there apparently are a lot of people around baseball who think he has the potential to be a quality major-league pitcher.

Quote of the week

"I'm the luckiest man in the world."

-- New York Yankees pitcher David Cone, on his 6-1 record and inflated 6.00 ERA.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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