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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : ANALYSIS : A West Shootout for Dodgers, Padres; An East Breeze for Mets

April 09, 1990|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine.

Early evening. Oct. 4, 1990. San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. A one-game playoff for the National League West championship.

Bottom of the ninth. Batting are the San Diego Padres, trailing by one run. With one out, Tony Gwynn lofts a double into to the left-field corner, and then steals third. Up steps Joe Carter.

The crowd of 55,000 is on its feet. Their screaming shakes the seats. Fights are breaking out in the bleachers. A fan painted blue drops from the stands into right field and runs toward Gwynn, but is tackled and handcuffed by two policemen.

There is such emotion, Carter must step out of the batter's box to catch his breath.

Because the team in the field is the Dodgers.

They are tired and limping and can barely see straight, but they are there. Kirk Gibson, growling in right field, has just thrown a beer can back in the stands. Jay Howell is kicking the dirt in front of the mound, trying to conjure up one more good fastball.

He pitches. Carter swings. A fly ball to deep left field. Underneath the ball runs left fielder Chris Gwynn, a late-inning defensive replacement. Brother Tony Gwynn tags up at third.

Chris makes the catch. Tony dashes toward home. Chris throws the ball with such force, he falls to the ground. Tony runs so hard he loses his helmet.

Chris' perfect throw reaches home plate at the same time as Tony, who slides as Mike Scioscia sweeps down with the tag . . .

Imagine. Because this the year it could happen.

The area that has furnished many of the players for baseball's pennant races in recent years may finally have a party of its own. The Padres and the Dodgers. A six-month fight along 120 miles of interstate highway. And you thought the weekend traffic to San Diego was bad last summer.

The drama is built into the schedule. The 18 games between the two teams include the season's first four games and last three.

The drama is built into the rivalry. San Diego fans hate Los Angeles. Los Angeles fans don't even know where San Diego is, but their Dodgers dislike the Padres, mostly because in the last two seasons, the Padres have won 23 of their 36 games.

But more than anything, the drama is built into their rosters.

The Padres should win the division.

But the Dodgers, if they remain healthy, could also win the division.

What about the defending champion San Francisco Giants? Remember what happened to the Dodgers last season? A drop from first to fourth place here is not out of the question. Sure, they have baseball's best player in Will Clark, and the best player with the worst work habits, Kevin Mitchell.

But oh, that pitching. When Kelly Downs went down with a shoulder injury recently, it meant the Giants' rotation would include a kid named Russ Swan.

The team that could come closest to the Dodgers and Padres is the Cincinnati Reds. They have shed the bad feelings of the Pete Rose era and are having fun again under new manager Lou Pinella.

The Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros should bring up the rear, although not in the order you would expect. In fact, not only should the Braves not finish last for seemingly the first time since the birth of Ted Turner, they may finish as high as third. Nick Esasky at first base, Jim Presley at third, and baseball's best young starting pitchers, like John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, could make a difference.

Finally, there are the Astros. This is a team whose third starter is a guy named Mark Portugal, whose fourth starter, Bill Gullickson, last pitched in Japan, and whose fifth starter, Jim Clancy, hasn't been any good since he left Canada.

What about the National League East? Well, it's there. But barring a massive earth shift, directionless Philadelphia is still in the East, and free-agent torn Montreal is still in the East. It will not be baseball's best division.

We'll go way out on a limb and say that the New York Mets will win it. Perhaps it's because they have more good pitching than the rest of the division combined. When is the last time your favorite team was forced to send Bob Ojeda to the bullpen?

We'll also go out on a limb and say that the managing of St. Louis' Whitey Herzog could make the race close, even final-week close.

How will Don Zimmer find a way to bring the Cubs back to the division title? He won't. He has no third baseman, Andre Dawson is still hurt, and after Mike Maddux his starting rotation is still suspect.

But at least he has a starting rotation. Montreal will go with the likes of Dennis Martinez, Oil Can Boyd and Zane Smith. Philadelphia will counter with Ken Howell, Bruce Ruffin and Terry Mulholland.

Then there is Pittsburgh. The Pirates are, in some respects, like the Dodgers. They could finish first, or not at all. They have a great outfield, but the rest of the team is either young or injury prone. And imagine a bullpen anchored by Bill Landrum and Ted Power.

Maybe imagining isn't always a good thing.

Here's how the division races shape up, in predicted order of finish:

THE WEST

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