Who's Most Valuable?
The race for the National League MVP award promises to be one of the closest ever. Padre third baseman Gary Sheffield, who at week's end still had an excellent chance of winning the Triple Crown, is probably the favorite, and Pirate left-fielder Barry Bonds is picking up supporters down the stretch. But don't count out Brave third baseman Terry Pendleton, who could become baseball's first back-to-back MVP winner since another Brave, Dale Murphy, won in 1982 and '83.
"[ Pendleton's] my MVP; he's had a better year this year," says Atlanta hitting coach Clarence Jones. "He has brought us back in games so many times. He's gotten so many big hits." Even one Pirate, who asked to remain anonymous rather than risk Bonds's wrath, says, "I'd pick Pendleton. He does more than anyone to win—leading in the clubhouse and directing the team on the field."
For his part, Pendleton says it's an honor just to be considered for the award. "I still can't grasp that I won the MVP last season," he says. Who can? After seven years with the Cardinals, in which he averaged six homers and 63 RBIs and batted .259, Pendleton signed with Atlanta in December 1990 and proceeded to hit a league-high .319, with 22 homers and 86 RBIs, in '91. He became the first player to raise his average as many as 80 points and improve his homer total by 15 or more in one year. Afterward, the Elias Sports Bureau determined that the odds of Pendleton's having that kind of season were nearly 40,000 to 1.
"I wish I'd taken them up on that because I knew, if I was healthy, I could have that kind of year," says Pendleton. "This spring I told some reporters that I thought I could have a better year this year. They were thinking, Yeah, right."
But he has. Through Sunday, Pendleton was hitting .305 and had 21 homers and 100 RBIs. These numbers are even more impressive considering that Pendleton is so unselfish at the plate. "If I had a choice of hitting .299 or .302 but not move runners along," he says, "I'd take .299."
Still, it's tempting to vote for Sheffield, given the brilliant season he has had, but consider two things: 1) He hits in the best spot in any batting order in the majors—behind four-lime batting champ Tony Gwynn and in front of slugger Fred McGriff—and 2) San Diego was 12 games out of first place at week's end. Given the latter fact, many voters are looking with new interest at Bonds, whose Pirates were leading the National League East by six games. His offensive statistics are fabulous: Through Sunday he had a .315 average, 30 homers, 94 RBIs, 101 runs and 37 steals, all in only 435 at bats. "He's the best leftfielder I've ever seen," says Reds' manager Lou Piniella. Bonds also was leading the league in slugging and on-base percentage, and perhaps most impressive, his league-leading 31 intentional walks shows that he has had no protection behind him for much of the season.
One of the great September pastimes is trying to project how players who were called up after the Ail-Star break will fare in a full season the following year. A few who have joined teams in the second half of this season—including Pirate pitcher Tim Wakefield, and outfielder Tim Salmon and infielder Damion Easley of the Angels—appear to have won starting jobs for '93. However, the most intriguing latecomer is Brewer pitcher Cal Eldred.
A 24-year-old righthander, Eldred has been spectacular since he was called up from Triple A Denver on July 15. Through Sunday he was 9-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 11 starts. Eldred had pitched 77? innings, and 70 of them were scoreless. "It's like something I've never seen," said Milwaukee infielder Paul Molitor after Eldred defeated the Orioles 3-1 on Sept. 13. "In the seventh inning he wasn't even sweating. He's strong, he knocks guys off the plate, and he never panics."