The Angels have held on gamely, because their starting pitching has led the league in ERA for most of the year. But now the team is worried about the physical condition of pitchers Chuck Finley (injured foot) and Kirk McCaskill (tired arm and back spasms). "People keep waiting for us to collapse, but it won't happen," says outfielder Claudell Washington. "Our pitching has to do it for us, and it can," says manager Doug Rader.
This division has been a wonderful season-long story, perhaps best highlighted by that game in which the Cubs rallied from a 9-0 deficit to beat the Astros 10-9. Cub broadcaster Harry Caray compared the win to V-J Day. The Expos have also had their moments in the sun—and under Olympic Stadium's retractable roof. And the Cardinals have crept into the hunt, despite the loss of three starting pitchers.
But when it comes to the crunch, the Cubs, Expos and Cards are going to have to beat the Mets' starting pitching. For that, credit Mets vice-president Joe McIlvaine, who acquired Frank Viola from the Twins on July 31. In the last five Septembers, the three winningest pitchers in the game have been Viola (19-10), Orel Hershiser (19-9) and Dwight Gooden (18-9). Viola's 1-0 defeat of Hershiser in Los Angeles on Aug. 28 emphasized how important it was to the Mets to have a great money pitcher to replace the injured Gooden, who has been out since July 1 with a muscle tear in his right shoulder. Meanwhile, Gooden was reactivated last Saturday and should be ready to start soon.
Consider also the September histories of the rest of the Mets' starters: Ron Darling is 11-2 and Sid Fernandez 11-3 for the last four Septembers, and David Cone was 6-0 last year. Add to this pitching Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson and Kevin McReynolds, the division's most productive heart of the order, and the Mets become the team to beat in the stretch.
The scrambling, gambling Cubs keep pulling off the impossible and refuse to fold. But can their pitching hold up? Reliever Mitch Williams hasn't thrown as well in the last two weeks as he did earlier. Manager Don Zimmer has only four available starters, including rookie Steve Wilson, and there is concern that pitching on three days' rest is taking its toll on Rick Sutcliffe and Mike Bielecki.
Montreal manager Buck Rodgers is worried about the Expo offense: It has been up and down for six weeks. The leadoff spot has been such a wasteland that last week Rodgers moved Tim Raines there from cleanup.
The Cardinals have four major strengths: Their lineup is healthy and hot; they have one of the division's best bull-pens; Joe Magrane (18-7) is pitching like a Cy Young winner; and their manager is Whitey Herzog. What hurts is that while every other contender has made at least one big move to acquire pitching—the Mets got Viola, the Expos got Mark Langston and Zane Smith, the Cubs got Paul Assenmacher, enabling them to start Wilson—Cards general manager Dal Maxvill has done nothing, forcing the team to face the stretch with two retreads, Rick Horton and Ted Power.
The Orioles have been America's sentimental favorite this year, just as the Red Sox were in 1967 and the Mets were in '69. But when August turned to September, the Blue Jays passed Baltimore (page 22), and the Red Sox were five games off the lead. For the O's, the impossible dream had become improbable. The Orioles have two big headaches in the stretch: Catcher Mickey Tettleton was activated last Saturday, but after missing a month with a knee injury, it could take a while to get his bat in shape; and they are trying to win with a four-man starting rotation that includes three rookies—Pete Harnisch, Bob Milacki and Dave Johnson—who have a combined lifetime record of 16-23.