- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Three teams that seemed without hope of contending for a pennant not long ago are making a run at divisional titles. The Giants, Royals and Red Sox should be commended for their persistence, but they should also be thankful that baseball has no great teams this year. Since divisional play began in 1969, there has been only one year, 1982, in which no team played .600 ball. It might happen again in this streaky, freaky season. Through Sunday only one team (the Pirates) was over .600.
The Giants were 12-29 on May 24, and at the All-Star break they were 14½ games behind the first-place Dodgers in the National League West. At week's end San Francisco had won 19 of its last 28 to pull within eight games of Los Angeles. The Giants' pitching, a disaster earlier in the season, has improved, thanks to 25-year-old lefty Trevor Wilson; veteran Dave Righetti, who, after a shaky start, is once again a top closer; and flaky rookie Paul McClellan. When manager Roger Craig went to the mound on Aug. 11 to take the ball from him, Craig extended his hand and McClellan shook it.
But the Giants are alive also because their three big guns—first baseman Will Clark, leftfielder Kevin Mitchell and third baseman Matt Williams—have been outstanding most of the second half. Clark, Mitchell and Williams have taken turns leading the league in RBIs the last three years—the first time three teammates have done that in National League history—and if they finish 1-2-3 in the league in home runs, which is a possibility, they would become the first trio from the same team to accomplish that feat. "They're the best threesome in the league—no one else is close," says a National League West scout. "And they play in the worst ballpark [Candlestick] to hit. With the wind blowing in at night, you have to crush the ball to get it out."
Clark is having an MVP year: .311 average, 23 homers and a league-leading 90 RBIs through Sunday. "Once I get 300 at bats, I start zeroing in," he says, explaining his recent hot streak.
Injuries have kept Mitchell from zeroing in most of the year, yet at week's end he had 23 homers in only 291 at bats. From the start of the '89 season through last weekend, Mitchell had 105 home runs, 21 more than any other National League player over that span. "There's a misconception about Kevin," says Williams. "People don't realize how disciplined a hitter he is. He's not standing up there flailing away. He's got a game plan for every at bat."
Williams can be very undisciplined, as evidenced by his 94 strikeouts and 19 walks through Sunday, but he also had 24 homers and 69 RBIs. "I remember Frank Howard saying all aggressive hitters are going to look stupid at times," says Giants catcher Terry Kennedy. "I see Matt improving every year. In '89 they wore him out with breaking balls. Not now."
When asked to name the last trio that was as potent as Clark, Mitchell and Williams, Craig said, "I guess it's Mays, McCovey and Cepeda. It's something to watch one of these guys play every day. Watching all three is a treat."
The Royals have relied on pitching and defense to pull themselves into the American League West race. On July 15 they were in last place with a 38-47 record, 11½ games behind the division-leading Twins. At week's end Kansas City was 8½ games out, having won 23 of its last 31 games. The pitching turnaround began against Detroit on July 14, when manager Hal McRae addressed the staff before the game. "It was kind of a butt-kick meeting to set us straight," says pitcher Mark Gubicza. Since that meeting, Royals starters were 16-5 with a 2.94 ERA. And between Aug. 4 and Aug. 14, Kansas City allowed only 10 runs in 10 games, and two of those games went extra innings.
The second part of the Royals' renaissance started in early July, when McRae benched third baseman Kevin Seitzer and shortstop Kurt Stillwell because he wasn't happy with their defense. McRae replaced them with, respectively, utilityman Bill Pecota and rookie David Howard, a' glove whiz. Since then, rookie Sean Berry also has seen time at third. With those changes, plus the manager's son Brian' running down balls in centerfield, Kansas City went eight games (82 innings) without an error. The benching of Seitzer and Stillwell made it clear to everyone on the team that McRae was in charge.