Baseball: Expos snap at Pirates' heels

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE second-placed teams in each division have now heard the bell in the race for the play-offs. With only three weeks of the regular season to go, Toronto, Oakland and Atlanta look untouchable in their respective divisions; but in the National League East, Pittsburgh must sweat it out as Montreal snap at their heels.

The Expos closed to within three games of the Pirates on Sunday, thanks to a disputed three- run homer by Philadelphia's Todd Pratt that sent the Pirates to a 6-3 defeat and a 2-1 loss of the weekend series. With the top two meeting in the first of two games at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium tomorrow, and another two- game series scheduled in Canada next week, the race is still wide open.

If Pittsburgh hang on for their third consecutive divisional crown, it will be a remarkable achievement for a club who are suffering a gradual haemorrhaging of talent.

Last winter a great hole was ripped in the line-up when the left fielder Barry Bonilla became, briefly, the best-paid player in baseball when he joined the New York Mets as a free agent after a 1991 season when he drove in 100 runs for the Pirates. Then the left- handed pitcher John Smiley, a 20- game winner in 1991, was traded to Minnesota in a deal openly opposed by Pittsburgh's manager, Jim Leyland, though, as he later conceded, 'that's economics'.

Against the odds the Pirates have maintained their dominance of the admittedly weak NL East, an achievement which Leyland puts down to their defensive qualities. 'We normally make the routine play on a daily basis and the great play every now and then,' he said. 'Normally we have pitching that throws the ball over the plate.'

However, no one has put up pitching figures to compare with Smiley's last year. Even Doug Drabek, a former Cy Young winner (pitcher of the year), is muddling along at 12-10, but a number of others, in particular Randy Tomlin, who has a 13-8 record, have taken up the slack.

Pittsburgh have also unearthed pitching talent in their minor league ranks: Tim Wakefield was a journeyman first baseman until, after a coach saw him messing around throwing a knuckleball one day, he was convinced he had a future as a starting pitcher.

Wakefield is 5-1 since being elevated to the majors in July, though the Pirates catcher, Mike Lavalliere, may not be so happy about having to deal with his knuckleball, an unpredictable pitch which, confusing as it is to the batter, often has the man behind the plate scrambling around in the dirt.

Several Pirates' bats have come hot at the right time too. Jay Bell is currently on an 18-game hitting streak. Andy Van Slyke is first in the NL batting averages. And Barry Bonds, who like his fellow free agent Drabek seems certain to look elsewhere for a multi-million-dollar contract in the winter, is hitting .393 so far in September. Bonds can only hope his bat does not cool off again in October if Pittsburgh make it into the post-season. He froze at the plate in both the 1990 and 1991 play- offs, for a combined average of a meagre .156.

Whatever happens next month, the drain of baseball talent from Pennsylvania's second city is a fact of life which Leyland will have to accept. Like Oakland, 1992 may represent Pittsburgh's last chance of winning for some years, as the economic pressures of operating in a small market bite harder.

A newspaper distributors' strike in Pittsburgh has not helped either. With the city's two main dailies shut since May, the club believe the loss of publicity is partly responsible for a 12 per cent drop in attendances this season. Blame it on the Teamsters.