Giants' feat may pull rug out from under Dodgers pair

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The fierce rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants dates more than a century - certainly to greater teams and greater times - but seldom have the stakes been higher than they are this year.

The Giants are running away with the National League West race, and they are beating the Dodgers on so many levels that the postseason repercussions could be dynamic.

No doubt, there will also be some soul-searching in Arizona, where the second-place Diamondbacks have fallen out of a race they were supposed to win, but the historical animosity between the Dodgers and Giants runs so deep that this lopsided season is going to change the face of the Dodgers franchise.

And why not? The Giants are streaking toward the playoffs on a $55-million payroll that is one of the smallest in the division. The Dodgers are fighting to stay out of fourth place with one of the highest payrolls in baseball - by some accounts as high as $98 million.

That alone may be reason enough for upper management to order the replacement of manager Davey Johnson and question the performance of general manager Kevin Malone, but there's more.

The Giants owe much of their success to manager Dusty Baker, who might have been managing the Dodgers the past several years if not for an ugly parting in the 1980s that diminished his stature as one of the most popular players in the organization.

Baker was one of the cornerstones of the highly successful Dodgers team that won three National League pennants and a world title during his eight years playing in Los Angeles, but was released after the 1983 season amid unsubstantiated drug rumors from unnamed club officials. How sweet it must be for him to finish ahead of the Dodgers four straight seasons and do it without an unlimited payroll.

Now Baker is about to become a free agent. His contract runs out at the end of the season, and he has resisted in-season attempts by the club to negotiate an extension. There have been rumors that the Dodgers will make a big push to win him back, but it might require more than a big contract to lure him out of the Bay Area. It might require a public apology.

In the meantime, he continues to enhance his reputation as one of the best managers in the game and could command as much as $3 million per year on the open market.

He'll probably end up staying in San Francisco, but he'll have the last laugh either way. The Dodgers figure to do a lot of hiring and firing this winter. They may even do a little more spending. What they aren't going to do is enough winning until they figure out what ails the organization and find a cure.

Flip side

Though the Giants are going to waltz into the playoffs, their chances of reaching the World Series - a great manager notwithstanding - are suspect. The club's greatest strength, the solid depth of the starting rotation, figures to be a weakness in the postseason.

The ideal postseason team has two or three marquee starting pitchers to dominate a short series. The Giants can put a solid pitcher in every slot of the rotation, but they don't have one starting pitcher certain to be a dominant force in the playoffs.

The closest thing might be Livan Hernandez, who is having a strong year and has had success in the postseason. Shawn Estes is having a solid season and Russ Ortiz has come on strong down the stretch, but neither has much in the way of playoff experience.

The Giants figure to draw either the New York Mets or the Atlanta Braves in the divisional round of the playoffs - both teams with stronger 1-2 starters. It could be a short October.

Fallout in Phoenix

Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo continues to express public confidence in manager Buck Showalter, but he's sending out mixed messages elsewhere.

He declined to confirm or deny a published report that he recently approached broadcaster (and former major-league catcher) Bob Brenly and asked him if he was interested in taking over the team. When Brenly also declined to comment, the lack of a strong denial left Showalter twisting in the wind.

"I'm focused on this season," Colangelo told reporters. "He's my manager, and there's nothing else to be said. I refuse to be brought into this circle of responding to speculative stories."

Nevin speaks out

San Diego Padres third baseman Phil Nevin, who emerged this year as a premier run-producer, also has emerged as a self-appointed clubhouse leader. He took the team to task last week for going through the motions in a three-game sweep to Pittsburgh at Qualcomm Stadium.

"I checked the calendar," Nevin told reporters. "This is Labor Day, not Oct. 1. But I just get the feeling in here that some people in this room are ready to shut it down and are ready for this thing to end. We had a chance to make a move and finish where we should be, but we came out unbelievably flat Friday night [Sept. 1]."

His critique was followed the next day by a shouting match with outfielder Ruben Rivera, who apparently felt some of the criticism was directed at him. Manager Bruce Bochy called a closed-door meeting to clear the air, and everyone has been making nice ever since.

Just so you know, Nevin shows up in this column regularly because he hails from Cal State Fullerton, the same school that produced one of the best-looking baseball writers in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Rocker redux

Braves reliever John Rocker finally appears to be all the way back from the controversy that threatened to ruin his promising career. He struggled through the first half of the season, but has allowed just four earned runs in his past 26 games and is back among the National League save leaders (albeit with just 19).

"I'm starting to enjoy playing again, and I want to go after someone," he told the Morris News Service. "Before, I was just trying to survive. I'm back to having a good time playing."

Atlanta's bullpen, however, has been a team effort. Fellow relievers Kerry Ligtenberg and Mike Remlinger have 12 saves apiece, leaving room to wonder whether Rocker will be the main man in the postseason.

Considering the way his performance was impacted by the Sports Illustrated controversy, the Braves can only hope that somebody knocks the Mets out of the playoffs in the first round.

Baylor frustrated

Cubs manager Don Baylor knew that taking the Chicago job would be a challenge, but the club's poor performance - particularly the past few weeks - has left him clearly frustrated.

"I've been embarrassed by the way we've played," he told the Chicago Tribune. "Against Livan Hernandez [last Sunday], we get two runs in the first inning and then shut it down. We haven't been able to do anything offensively, and that's embarrassing. It's not like we're facing Randy Johnson or [Curt] Schilling every day."

Good attitude

His club's lead has been shaved to 8 1/2 games, but Chicago White Sox manager Jerry Manuel continues to exude confidence in his solid young ballclub.

"We're going to be fine," he said. "We're playing good baseball and have for a period of time. So is Cleveland. That's what pennant races are all about. It could get interesting, but that's fine."

Who's next?

Cincinnati Reds manager Jack McKeon has fallen so far out of the loop that he was informed after the media of two player moves and that shortstop Barry Larkin was set for arthroscopic knee surgery.

It doesn't take a clairvoyant to figure out that he won't be back to manage the club next year. Former Royals manager Bob Boone and Reds third baseman Ron Oester appear to be the most likely candidates to replace him, but Reds management isn't saying anything on the subject.

"You want the stock answer?" chief operating officer John Allen told reporters recently. "At the appropriate time, we'll sit down and evaluate this year."

Indians persist

Though it seems all but certain that Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez will try to break the bank in the free agent market this winter, the Indians insist that they still have a chance to re-sign him.

"We've made a very strong offer," general manager John Hart said recently. "There's still time to have a meeting of the minds. But it takes two to tango."

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