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THE INSIDE TRACK | PAGE TWO

Piazza Is Beginning to Look Like an MVP

September 01, 1997|RANDY HARVEY

With your team winning 11 of 14 games, in first place by 2 1/2 games and drawing crowds of more than 50,000, the questions you hear from sportswriters tend to be easy.

Like the one I asked Dodger Executive Vice-President Fred Claire about whether Mike Piazza so far is the National League's most valuable player.

"If he's not, I don't know who is," Claire said.

Cases could be made for Colorado's Larry Walker, San Diego's Tony Gwynn and Houston's Jeff Bagwell. But I agree with Claire.

The Rockies and Padres would be in the same position without Walker and Gwynn that they are with them, trying to avoid last place in the West. The Astros lead the Central, but Bagwell is the first to admit he's been inconsistent since the All-Star Game.

Piazza has been exceptional since then. No National Leaguer has more than his 16 home runs and 46 RBIs since the break, and, entering Sunday's game, only Atlanta's Kenny Lofton had hit for a higher average than Piazza's .352 during that time.

The question is whether Piazza can continue hitting as August turns to September.

He hasn't in the past, with a lifetime average of .288 after Labor Day. Conventional wisdom is that he plays so many games each year at catcher, the most demanding position, he's finished before the season is.

That was never more true than in 1996, when he hit .174 during the critical, six-game homestand to end the regular season. It was no coincidence the Dodgers and Piazza finished as runners-up, the Dodgers to San Diego in the West and Piazza to the Padres' Ken Caminiti in MVP voting.

Claire, however, believes Piazza is more ready for the last month of the season than ever before because of interleague play.

The designated hitter in five games this season, he could play that role twice more this week. With days off today and Thursday and games Tuesday and Wednesday in Texas, he might not have to catch again until Friday.

For him, that's virtually a week off to carry him into the rest of September. October too if he continues hitting like an MVP.

*

Washington State devised a diabolical defensive strategy, wearing out Skip Hicks by allowing him to carry 27 times for 190 yards. . . .

I wish UCLA Coach Bob Toledo had called time out to at least ask Hicks if he could have carried a 28th time with fourth and less than a yard to go for the winning touchdown in a 37-34 loss to the Cougars. . . .

Like John McKay used to say when asked if he would let O.J. Simpson carry the ball 30 times, "Why not? It's not heavy." . . .

But I don't have as much argument with that decision by UCLA's coaches as with the one to go for two points after a touchdown with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter cut the Cougars' lead to 37-27. . . .

I'd feel differently if Washington State's defense had been dominating. But the Bruins were moving the ball almost at will and had plenty of time left. . . .

With an extra point there, they could have won the game by kicking a chip-shot field goal at the end instead of needing a touchdown. . . .

I've read so much about Peyton Manning, I feel I know everything about him except his favorite movie. Probably "Moonstruck." . . .

But I doubt he'll ever smile more during a film than he will this week, when he's watching Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf slice apart UCLA's secondary. . . .

Whoa, Keith Jackson. . . .

How many times this season are you going to refer to Leaf as Drew Bledsoe? . . .

I guess Bledsoe really doesn't miss Bill Parcells. . . .

I guess the Jets really don't miss Rich Kotite. . . .

The Cowboys obviously didn't need Larry Brown to beat Pittsburgh. . . .

Beginning Year III without pro football, the only team we're going to see every week is the threesome in ABC's "Monday Night Football" booth. . . .

They're complaining about the time-and-score box on our screens constantly during their telecasts this season. . . .

I, for one, like the graphic introduced by Fox. . . .

The only time there's clutter is when Frank Gifford talks without having anything to say. That's happens more with each passing year. He hasn't been at the top of his game since Howard and Dandy Don left. . . .

Turn out the lights, Frank, the party's over.

*

While wondering if there's a more depressing sight in sports than Jerry Rice on crutches, I was thinking: Kordell Stewart was more fun to watch with his slash, I can't help but pull for J.T. Snow, Disney's belief in Encarnacion is one more reason for the Baptists to boycott.

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