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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN

Piazza, Caminiti Tie Up MVP Votes With Tenacity

September 23, 1996

SAN DIEGO — A committee of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America will eventually separate Mike Piazza and Ken Caminiti, choosing one as the National League's most valuable player. Too bad.

Why not forget the statistical comparison and call it a tie, a salute to their similar tenacity?

The highest honor. In the lexicon of the game: gamers.

There they were again Sunday, ailing but dogged principals in a pivotal finale of a showdown series in which each team won twice but the Dodgers tore four days off the calendar and came out with the same half-game lead with which they entered.

The San Diego Padres won the finale, 3-2, as 51,092 at Jack Murphy Stadium chanted "MVP" in honor of third baseman Caminiti and even Piazza later expressed admiration, as Caminiti did when asked about the Dodger catcher.

Who could blame them?

There was Piazza, with torn cartilage in his right knee, increasingly concerned that it isn't going to mend without winter surgery, spending nine more innings behind the plate and hammering a 446-foot rocket into the left-field upper deck for a career high of 36 homers after previously drilling a single, lining out and drawing an intentional walk.

There was Caminiti, with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder that will also have to be repaired when the season is over, contributing two singles and a walk and making one of those twisting, gold-glove plays in a tense ninth inning on a wicked ground ball that drove him to his knees and served as a reminder why San Diego batting coach Merv Rettenmund claims he has as many saves as any closer in the National League.

Trevor Hoffman was credited with this one. He worked a hitless 1 2/3 innings to help narrow the race in the NL West again and move his team two games ahead of the Montreal Expos in the wild-card chase.

Both the Dodgers and Padres are off today, with the San Francisco Giants, an injury-riddled team of strangers, up next for Los Angeles; and the Colorado Rockies, who win on the road about once every month, next for the Padres.

The MVP? A backdrop to the Dodger-Padre confrontation.

So far back, Piazza would say, that it is hard to think about or talk about, but he said of Caminiti:

"If I don't happen to win it, I wouldn't feel that badly about losing to him just because of what he represents as a player."

Piazza listed guts, talent, competitiveness.

"He plays hard, but he also plays with humility," he added. "I like him a lot."

In the Padre clubhouse, Caminiti didn't have to be told about Piazza's ailing knee.

"I see it in the way he runs," Caminiti said. "I don't even know how he squats [behind the plate].

"To not have a good knee and hit with the power he does is pretty impressive because I know that I need my legs to hit. He has tremendous upper body strength.

"If he considers me a gamer it's a real compliment, because he's one as well."

Piazza shook his head, reflecting on the knee.

"I think I'm going to take up the Advil campaign after Nolan Ryan's contract is up," he said. "I've been popping them like candy, but I don't want to get started on any kind of stronger pain killers.

"After the season I'm going to have to get this reevaluated because it just doesn't feel right. There's too much weakness and pain.

"Some days it's better than others, but right now I can use the day off. Looking back, I probably should have taken a few more, but it's tough when you hit where I do in the lineup and are swinging good."

Piazza is batting a league-leading .344. He had five hits in the four games here after going one for 10 in Colorado, trying to do too much, he said.

"I was more relaxed here," he said. "I felt better about the way I was swinging."

Tim Worrell didn't. Piazza became the 13th player to reach the second deck, connecting on a Worrell fastball to make it 3-2 in the eighth. The 36 homers are one more than he hit in 1993.

"It's something to be proud of," he said, "but it takes a back seat to what we're trying to accomplish."

So does the MVP, of course, but Piazza doesn't entirely dismiss it.

He is hitting .360 over his last 28 games, finishing strong at a time when he's needed most.

"I can't lobby for myself, but I hope people recognize what I mean to the club," he said.

One such person is Tony Gwynn. Aside from his offensive contributions, the Padre outfielder said Piazza deserves a measure of credit for the success of a Dodger pitching staff that boasts baseball's best earned-run average.

"To me, Piazza has gotten a little more aggressive behind the plate," Gwynn said. "He takes more chances now [with his location and selection]."

High praise on a day when Piazza and Caminiti, those MVP candidates, were exchanging the highest.

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