A month ago, Dodger pitching sensation Hideo Nomo looked like a lock to be the National League Rookie of the Year, not to mention a serious threat to Greg Maddux as he pursued his fourth straight Cy Young Award and, with Los Angeles overtaking Colorado for the NL West lead, maybe even a candidate for the league's MVP.
However, Nomo had won only once in his last four starts through Sunday, and he had a 7.56 ERA over his last three outings. At the same time, rookie third baseman Chipper Jones of the Braves has been hammering his way out of a midseason slump, hitting .310 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in August.
As a result, the National League's top rookie—as well as a few other hotly contested major awards—will be determined in the final five weeks of the regular season.
Despite his recent struggles, Nomo was still 10-5 with a 2.59 ERA and a league-high 194 strikeouts at week's end. Since the inception of the rookie award in 1947, the only three pitchers to have 215 or more strikeouts in their first major league season—Herb Score in 1955, John Montefusco in '75 and Dwight Gooden in '84—have won it. But Jones, who was hitting .270 with 18 home runs and 67 RBIs through Sunday, has arguably been the best everyday player on one of the best teams in the National League this year.
It's just one close race in one of the most intriguing seasons for awards in recent years. Here are the other close calls.
AL Most Valuable Player. The heart and soul of the runaway Red Sox, first baseman Mo Vaughn (.291, 32 homers, 99 RBIs at week's end), is the leading candidate—but not by much. Outfielders Jim Edmonds (.302, 30, 97) and Tim Salmon (.325, 30, 86) of the AL West-leading Angels are keeping pace with the Boston slugger. Amazingly, second-year Indian outfielder Manny Ramirez (.322, 29, 94) is in the top eight of all three Triple Crown categories, but he may not even be the MVP of his own team.
Two pitchers also deserve consideration. Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who climbed off the scrap heap to post a 14-2 record and a league-leading 2.30 ERA through Sunday, carried the Red Sox' injury-plagued rotation through the first half of the season. Cleveland's Jose Mesa, who in his first full year as a closer converted a single-season-record 38 consecutive save opportunities, filled the one gaping hole the Indians had when the season started.
NL Most Valuable Player. This might be the hardest choice of them all, and the vote could be tied to the outcome of the only divisional race left—the NL West. If Colorado leftfielder Dante Bichette continues to lead the league in homers (32) and RBIs (99) while hitting at a .334 clip, and the Rockies are in the race down to the wire, he will be hard to ignore. If the Padres win that division and rightfielder Tony Gwynn hits .360 and drives in 100 runs, he would rate consideration. If the Dodgers hold off both of those teams—and Mike Piazza (.367, 26 homers, 71 RBIs in just 84 games, through Sunday) is a big reason that they do—their catcher will become a strong candidate.
The Reds had a 13�-game lead in the NL Central after Sunday's games, and shortstop Barry Larkin—a .330 hitter as well as the league co-leader in stolen bases (42) as of Sunday—will get a long look for his part in Cincinnati's success. And even though no National League pitcher has won the award since St. Louis's Bob Gibson in 1968, Maddux of the NL East-leading Braves will draw support here en route to winning another Cy Young.