At halfway point, a bashing bonanza Baseball: Sluggers are taking it to diluted pitching staffs and adding excitement to the game with runs on the single-season home run and RBI records.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No wonder they call this an expansion year. The 1998 season has arrived at its traditional midpoint, and everything looks bigger than before.

In some cases, a lot bigger.

St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire remains comfortably ahead of the pace necessary to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record, and he is not alone.

Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa and Seattle Mariners superstar Ken Griffey are close behind, creating the tantalizing possibility of a multi-player record chase in September.

Perhaps even more impressive, Texas Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez is on pace to challenge Hack Wilson's single-season record of 190 RBIs, which hasn't been in serious danger since the Roosevelt administration.

Coincidence?

Obviously not. Major League Baseball has expanded twice in the last five years, diluting an already shallow pool of pitching talent to the point where the game's top offensive stars are almost impossible to hold in check.

McGwire has hit three home runs in a game twice already. Gonzalez has driven in five runs in a game five times. Sosa recently hit 21 home runs in a 30-day period. Don't even try to project that out over a full season.

Purists wax apoplectic about the apparent imbalance between pitching and hitting that has developed during the expansion era, but nobody in the stands seems to mind.

"That's why this game is such a great game right now," said McGwire. "I think that's why a lot of fans are coming back, because of all the great things that are happening."

It isn't just about expansion. It's about the biggest offensive stars getting bigger and better at a time when the overall baseball talent pool has been thinned by expansion and the heightened popularity of other sports.

In actuality, the overall scoring statistics at the All-Star break are only marginally higher than they were last year. Scoring in the American League is up about 2 percent. The average runs per game scored in the National League this season is slightly lower than the overall per-game average in the NL in 1997.

"I think it really tells you how good those guys are," said four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves. "They're staying healthy. They've gotten better over the years, and they're not missing their pitches. I think the pitching is as good as it's always been. Expansion has thinned it out a hair, but I don't think there's a big difference between now and a few years ago."

Maddux may be presenting an overly rosy view of the state of major-league pitching in the 1990s, but his sentiments are echoed by others who feel that it isn't fair to discount the achievements of this year's top offensive stars.

"I think we're losing a lot of athletes [to other sports]," said Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who has a chance to become the first player in major-league history to hit 50 homers and steal 50 bases in the same season. "Pitching is watered down a little bit, but hitters are stronger and faster. They've got all this videotape. There are just some awesome hitters out there.

"If you put Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle next to Mark McGwire, they'd look like his grandkids."

Of course, the top pitchers still are going to keep runs off the scoreboard, but the 1998 offensive bonanza also has been facilitated by a rash of injuries that has decimated the upper echelon of the game's pitching ranks.

The Orioles have been hit as hard as anyone, with pitching ace Mike Mussina forced onto the disabled list twice by freak injuries and Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki also spending extended periods on the sidelines.

The Anaheim Angels have lost Ken Hill and Jack McDowell. The Cardinals have been without three top starters for most of the first half. The Los Angeles Dodgers have lost Ramon Martinez for the rest of the season. The Kansas City Royals have been without Kevin Appier since spring training. The list goes on and on.

Not that the pitching crisis has -- necessarily -- diminished the entertainment value of the national pastime.

That isn't the sky falling. It's another 500-foot home run landing in somebody's backyard off Waveland Avenue on the north side of Chicago. It's McGwire visiting Cleveland's Jacobs Field for a three-game interleague series and putting a dent in the scoreboard high above left field.

Fans love offense. They love big numbers. And they love, most of all, home runs. If the 1998 season is in danger of becoming cartoonish, with McGwire in the large-forearmed role of Popeye, it does not seem to bother the masses, who turn out early everywhere just to watch him hit fake home runs in batting practice.

McGwire and baseball's other big boppers arrived just in time to divert attention from a less fortuitous fact of life in 1998: There hasn't been much pennant suspense.

The only division featuring a neck-and-neck race at midseason is the American League West, where the Angels have overcome their pitching problems to engage the Rangers in a two-team runaway made more surprising by the mysterious disappearance the favored Mariners.

The AL East, which was expected to be the most hotly contested division race, turned out to be the most lopsided first-half runaway since the Detroit Tigers got off to a 35-5 start and went wire-to-wire to win the East in 1984.

Nobody in New York is complaining, of course. The Yankees got off to the best start in their storied history and appear to have the division title locked up. They are on pace to break the Cubs' major-league record of 116 victories in a season, even though they do not have a player among the league's top five in any run-production category.

The Boston Red Sox still are close enough to stage a miracle comeback, but would be better served to concentrate on the developing wild-card race with the third-place Toronto Blue Jays and one of the two AL West contenders.

The real surprise team in the East has been the Orioles, but it hasn't been a pleasant surprise. The most expensive team in the history of baseball has needed just three months to prove that money isn't everything.

The American League division that has played closest to preseason form is the Central, where the Cleveland Indians were not expected to meet significant resistance on their way to the playoffs.

Predictably, the pitching-rich Braves are running away with the National League East, but there have been some surprises in the other NL division races. The San Diego Padres have pulled out to a 5 1/2 -game lead over the defending division champion San Francisco Giants and have all but blown away the Dodgers, who have gone from preseason favorite to media circus in the space of four months.

The NL Central is playing out close to form, with the Houston Astros apparently on track to defend their 1997 division title. The Cubs, who got a huge boost with the quick emergence of rookie pitching phenom Kerry Wood, are not far behind, but pitching problems have kept the Cardinals well below .500.

McGwire, whose first-half theatrics have diverted attention from his club's disappointing performance, said it's way too early to give up on the NL Central race. The Cardinals open the second half with a four-game series against the first-place Astros today.

Halftime stats

Keeping score

Overall scoring is up slightly in 1998, but the average runs scored per game in the National League at the All-Star break is slightly lower than last season.

1998

American League ..... Games ..... Runs ..... Avg.

..... ..... ..... ... 602 ....... 6,047 .... 10.04

National League ..... 696 ....... 6,362 .... 9.14

1997 (full season)

American League ..... 1,132 ..... 11,164 ... 9.86

National League ..... 1,134 ..... 10,440 ... 9.21

Big guns

Though the difference in scoring between the 1997 season and 1998 is only marginal, the number of unusually outstanding individual performances clearly reflects the impact of expansion on the quality of major-league pitching. Here are some examples:

* St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire is on pace to hit 70 home runs and shatter Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61.

* Texas Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez has 101 RBIs at the break, a pace that would challenge Hack Wilson's 1930 record of 190 RBIs in a season.

* Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa also are on pace to break the Maris record.

* Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez, with 27 homers and 24 stolen bases, could become the first player in major-league history to hit 50 homers and steal 50 bases in the same season.

* There are three players -- Gonzalez, Sosa and McGwire -- on pace to drive in more than 150 runs, something that has not been done since four accomplished the feat in 1937.

The Oakland Athletics' Rickey Henderson, 39, leading the AL in steals, could become the oldest player to win a stolen base title (the mark is held by the Chicago White Sox's Eddie Collins, at 37 in 1924).

At this pace...

Home runs: Mark McGwire would hit 70, Ken Griffey 64, Sammy Sosa 61.

RBIs: Juan Gonzalez would finish with 188, Mark McGwire 160, Sammy Sosa 151, Ken Griffey 145, Rafael Palmeiro 133.

Runs: Ken Griffey would finish with 140, Craig Biggio 140.

Big shoulders

There also have been some big pitching performances:

* The Philadelphia Phillies' Curt Schilling has 180 strikeouts and is on pace to strike out 322.

* Seattle's Randy Johnson has 170 strikeouts and will finish with 304 at his current pace.

* The New York Yankees' David Wells pitched the first regular-season perfect game in Yankees history, in May.

* Chicago rookie Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a single game.

* Seventeen pitchers are on pace to win 17 games or more. Twelve pitchers won 17 or more in 1997.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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