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HR dropoff could kill anti-hitter action

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Statistical anomalies tend to even out over time, which may explain why the dramatic upsurge in home runs earlier this season has given way to a significant downturn through the summer months - particularly in the National League.

National League hitters banged a home run every 26 at-bats over the first two months of the season, which represented about a 15 percent upturn from the league's 1999 average and contributed to the growing body of evidence in favor of some adjustment in the balance of power between pitchers and hitters.

Since then, however, NL power hitters have tailed off considerably, their ratio of home runs to at-bats the past three months (1 for every 32 at-bats) falling below the 1999 figure.

The American League numbers are less compelling. They show that home run production has dropped slightly during the summer months, leaving the combined ratio for this year still about 6 percent higher than 1999. That's still statistically significant, but the downward trend over the summer could temper concern about the baseball-wide pitching shortage.

Not that baseball was on the verge of doing anything, anyway. The only practical solution to the offensive explosion of the past few years might be to raise the mound several inches. The height of the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 when pitching became too dominant in the late 1960s.

Though it might make sense to raise it back to 12 or 13 inches to tone down the offensive onslaught, baseball owners aren't in any hurry to pass rules changes that would make the game less exciting to casual fans.

Good Will hunting

Former Orioles first baseman Will Clark batted .394 with eight home runs and 18 RBIs in the first month after the club traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals - in one month coming surprisingly close to matching his run-production numbers (10 homers, 29 RBIs) for the entire 1999 season in Baltimore.

Clark struggled early this season, too, but had turned up the volume during the weeks leading up to the July 31 trading deadline.

Clearly, Clark has been re-energized by the move to the division-leading Cardinals, but it's fair to ask what that says about his competitive character. The obvious conclusion is that he is a gamer who rises to the occasion, but the team that paid him $ 9 million for his 1 1/2 seasons in Baltimore might look at it differently.

Seven and out

Orioles ace Mike Mussina has raised some eyebrows by exiting three strong starts in a row after seven innings. In each case, there was a physical reason why he chose not to continue, but it seemed clear in a couple of those cases that he probably would have stayed out there if the games had possessed greater meaning.

That could cost Mussina some macho points with prospective teams if he enters the free-agent market this winter, but the cautious approach makes sense. If he aggravated the groin injury to the point of being unable to finish the season, it would hurt the Orioles in the short term and Mussina over the long term.

His chances of getting a market-value contract already have been endangered by his 8-13 record and the club's inability to give him decent offensive support. A significant injury would only make it tougher to take full advantage of his free-agent eligibility.

Selfish consideration?

Maybe. But Mussina has been a good soldier throughout his nine-year career in Baltimore. If he feels he has to look out for himself for a couple of months, that's his business.

Red Sox deal

Boston clearly upgraded its offensive potential with the acquisition of slugger Dante Bichette, but it remains to be seen if its upgraded attack will be strong enough to unseat the Yankees in the American League East.

No doubt, general manager Dan Duquette made the move to try and assure the club earns at least a wild-card berth, but the division race is still within reach if Bichette can avoid a lengthy adjustment period at the plate.

He struggled badly in the early weeks of the season after being traded to the Cincinnati Reds last winter. If he has similar problems against unfamiliar American League pitching, the deal will have been for naught.

Peacemaker Everett

The brawl between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Devil Rays cast volatile outfielder Carl Everett in an unusual role - the guy with the cool head.

It was Everett who went to pitching ace Pedro Martinez and told him to back away from the beanball battle after his inside pitch sparked a fight with Devil Rays outfielder Gerald Williams.

"I went and told him, 'Don't even do it. It's not worth it,'" Everett told the Boston Herald. "We have a goal right now to make the playoffs. If he hits someone, he's going to get suspended, so it's not worth it."

This is the same Carl Everett who was suspended for head-butting umpire Ron Kulpa and who recently had a shouting match with manager Jimy Williams in the clubhouse, but he kept his head and also drove in six runs that night to help Boston stay on course.

Erstad's feat

Everybody's talking about Todd Helton and his attempt to become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941, but you have to go even farther back into baseball history to match what Angels outfielder Darin Erstad did on Tuesday night.

He collected his 200th hit in his 132nd game of the year, the quickest anyone has gotten there since St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Joe Medwick reached 200 hits in 1931. The last time someone in the American League got there quicker was in 1925, when Al Simmons did it in 125 games.

"Actually, it surprised me. Didn't he have 200 hits about a month ago," teammate Tim Salmon said to reporters afterward. "You watch him play, it seems like he gets 200 hits every month."

Erstad, the former University of Nebraska punter and place-kicker, accepted the accomplishment with his usual low-key, Midwestern humility.

"I don't walk much," he said, "so I need to get hits to get on base, especially being a leadoff hitter. We've got some guys on our team who can do some damage. I'm probably a benefactor of that because they can't pitch around me because we've got those guys."

Bargain basher

It took San Diego Padres third baseman Phil Nevin a little longer than expected to go from 1992 No. 1 draft choice to impact player, but he has emerged this year as one of the National League's top offensive threats - and one of baseball's biggest bargains.

Nevin entered the weekend batting .309 with 30 home runs and 104 RBIs, all for the amazingly low price of $750,000. He'll make just $1.5 million next year and $2.6 million in 2002, but he told the San Diego Union Tribune that he has no complaints.'These people gave me a chance to play," he said. "It means a lot to me to wear this uniform."

Nevin nearly became one of the biggest first-pick flops in history after signing with the Houston Astros out of Cal-State Fullerton. He bounced from Houston to Detroit to Anaheim, hitting just 28 home runs in his first four major-league season, But he began to realize his great potential last year in San Diego, where he hit 24 homers and drove in 85 runs in just 383 at-bats.

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