Is it Gene Autry’s fate that when the California Angels seem surprisingly good enough to reach the World Series for the first time, the Cleveland Indians have put together an awesome team after 40 mostly miserable years?
The team most likely to drop out of the chase in the A.L. West early is the Seattle Mariners. Only three games from first place last Sunday after evenly dividing 10 games with the other division teams, the Mariners lost their next four games and slipped six games back.
“I don’t know,” Mariners manager Lou Piniella said when asked if his team had endurance. “We’re short. We’ve been short for a while. We’ve been playing hard, but we’ve needed some help. It’s starting to show.”
By all rights, the Mariners should have disappeared immediately after May 26. That’s the day Ken Griffey Jr. broke his wrist hitting the Kingdome’s outfield wall.
“We needed a hitter even with Griffey,” Piniella said. “We need two starters in our rotation and a couple hitters in our lineup. It’s starting to show. This is a league where you have to pound the ball, and we don’t have too many pounders.”
The Indians, with only 11 winning seasons since winning 111 games in 1954, entered Saturday’s games with a 12-game lead in the American League’s Central Division.
Although anything can happen in a postseason series, the Angels don’t match up with the Indians - who does? - and would be hard-pressed, if they reach the playoffs, to sneak past them. This is Autry’s 35th year in baseball, and he’s 0 for 34 in efforts to play in the World Series.
The Angels, on the other hand, are one of the major reasons the A.L. West is a drastically differently division from the one described in preseason assessments. The division was last year’s laughingstock because the firstplace team, the Rangers, finished 10 games below .500.
When this season began, the division was given no respect while everybody pointed to the A.L. East as the best in the major leagues. The N.L. West received the same treatment as its A.L. counterpart.
With the season actually being played, it turns out that the best races may reside in the two West Divisions. That doesn’t necessarily mean those divisions are the strongest, but it would mean they are the best balanced, and major-league baseball will accept whatever it takes to create races because races are desperately needed to lure fans to the parks.
As the late-starting season reaches the All-Star break, the question is whether or not all four teams in each West Division can remain in the race.
While admitting he doesn’t know if the Mariners will remain in the race, Piniella said he thinks the other three teams will.
“They don’t have any particular weaknesses,” he said. “I don’t think any of those three teams will pull away from each other. I think they’ll stay close. Us? We could go either way. I know that we don’t have the horses the other teams have.”
The Angels, Piniella said, score runs and have experienced starting pitchers and an improved bullpen with Troy Percival and Lee Smith. Texas, he said, also has a strong offense, especially with Juan Gonzalez back.
“It remains to be seen,” he added, “especially in the heat in Texas, how the pitchers will hold up.”
The Oakland Athletics have a solid club, Piniella said, except for their starting rotation. “We’ll see how their No. 1 draft pick will help them,” he said, referring to Ariel Prieto, the Cuban refugee who lost his first start Friday.
The most interesting aspect of the race in the N.L. West has been the development of the third-year Colorado Rockies. By tonight, the upstart Rockies will have been in first place for 59 of the season’s 77 days.
“We’re hanging in there contrary to what Lasorda said,” Don Baylor commented, alluding to a comment the Dodgers manager made during a recent series between the teams. “We’re where we are because we’ve gone from last in defense to first. That helps the pitchers. You can’t be last in defense and last in pitching.”
Despite his team’s performance, Baylor believes the Dodgers still have “the team to beat.”
“They have good starting pitching, and they have Todd Worrell, who’s having an incredible year,” Baylor said, referring the reliever’s remarkable comeback. “I don’t count out the Giants, and San Diego has good pitching. No one has run away from the Giants without Matt Williams so they should be there. They have Rod Beck, and they catch the ball.”
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