THE RACE IS ON
It's looking like the late 1970s and early '80s again in the American League. With the four best teams in the league—the Blue Jays, Tigers, Yankees and Orioles—the East is king once more, and pennant races don't get any better than the one that's shaping up in the division.
There was a late-September atmosphere in the East last week when New York played at Toronto and Detroit visited Baltimore, then the Yankees moved on to Camden Yards for a three-game weekend series with the Orioles. After the dust had settled on Sunday the Blue Jays had swept past the Tigers and into first place, by two games; the Yankees were holding steady, three games back, in third; and the red-hot Orioles, winners of 19 of their last 23, had moved three games closer to the lead, just five games out.
Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, whose team was in first place by itself from May 2 until last Friday, worries most about the Blue Jays. "Right now they're sitting in the driver's seat," he says. "They will do [by way of a late-season trade] exactly what they have to do to win it." New York also is expected to trade for help (Red pitcher Tim Belcher, perhaps?).
But what about Baltimore, which, after starting the season 20-29, through Sunday had won eight straight series for the first time since 1979? The Birds have turned it around with improved offense—thanks mostly to catcher Chris Hoiles, who at week's end had six home runs and 12 RBIs in his last six games—and the return to form of the league's best bullpen. Closer Gregg Olson was 11 for 11 in save opportunities this month, having given up no runs in 9? innings.
The Orioles generated some exciting comebacks along the way. On June 22, in the opener of the three-game series against the Tigers, Baltimore rallied from a 7-1 deficit in the fourth inning to win 12-9. The Birds scored eight runs after the first two hitters were retired in the sixth inning and then held on for perhaps the most inspiring win in the two-year history of Camden Yards. Three nights later Baltimore trailed New York 6-0 in the fourth but scrambled back to win 7-6 in 10 innings. Before last week the Orioles had come back from a six-run deficit to win a game only 12 times in their 39-year history. "Maybe it's an omen," says Baltimore pitching coach Dick Bosman.
Don't expect Baltimore to pursue help for the stretch run as actively as Toronto or New York will, but the Orioles' call-up of outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds from Triple A Rochester last Friday might turn out to be the most important move in the division. The Orioles' first-round pick in the 1992 amateur draft, he has the potential to hit 20 home runs and steal 70 bases a season in the major leagues.
Hammonds had two singles and drew an intentional walk in his major league debut against the Yanks last Friday. After the Orioles' big comeback in that game, fellow rookie Jack Voigt smiled and told Hammonds, "They're all like that around here." The next night Hammonds had two more hits, including a homer, in another wild win, 12-10, over New York.
THE FIRE SALE CONTINUES
Third baseman Gary Sheffield is a lucky man. Last Thursday he was traded from an "expansion team" to the Marlins.