Sunday, August 27, 2000

NL INSIDER


West race could go either way

By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The engrossing West race seems like a tossup. The San Francisco Giants led Arizona by 31/2 games entering the weekend, and it's impossible to discount the chances of a team that has Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling on its side, as Arizona does.

        The almighty schedule, however, suggests that the Giants have a significant edge to dethrone the Diamondbacks.

        Entering Saturday, San Francisco was due to face teams with losing records in 24 of its final 36 games. Of those 24, 15 are against four of the league's worst clubs: Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Giants also have 19 games left at home, where they are an imposing 43-20.

        The Diamondbacks must play teams above .500 in 22 of their last 35 games. That gauntlet features two more games this weekend at New York and six apiece against Atlanta and Los Angeles. Even the other 13 games won't be easy. The Diamondbacks play 10 games against Florida and Colorado, who are near .500, and three at Montreal, where they are 4-8. And Arizona has just 12 home dates remaining.

        Catching New York in the wild-card race will be another challenge for Arizona. The Mets have a whopping 15 games against teams that are at least 15 games under .500 (Houston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Montreal).

        The one saving grace for the Diamondbacks is that they can determine their own fate. They play the Mets 10 more times. More compelling still, eight of their last 11 games are against the Giants. This should be fun.

        SUPER SAMMY: Go ahead and skip this item if you're tired of Sammy Sosa, who appears in this space almost weekly. But you have to admit that whether he's in the batter's box or the negotiating table, his deeds are almost always newsworthy.

        Sosa's recent home run barrage has left him with a fair shot at reaching 60 homers for a third consecutive season. Before Friday, he had five homers in his last six games, 14 in his previous 27 games and 22 in 42 games since July 8.

        “I never give up,” Sosa told Chicago-area reporters. “No matter what the situation, there are people watching you, so I play hard every day. I have to earn my respect.”

        Sosa did more than that Monday at Houston, where he commanded awe. He belted a home run that struck a light tower about 120 feet above the left-field wall. The official estimate for the blast's distance was 457 feet, tying Montreal's Andy Tracy for the longest at Enron Field. But the consensus was that Sosa's traveled much farther.

        “If that ball went a foot, it went 550 feet,” Astros left fielder Lance Berkman told the Houston Chronicle. “There are only a handful of guys who can hit a ball 550 feet, and he's one of them. I can guarantee you that ball was approaching that distance. It wasn't even on its way down.”

        Astros right-hander Scott Elarton, who yielded the homer, actually sounded thrilled to have been involved.

        “I usually don't watch them,” Elarton said. “But when that one came off the bat, I turned around. I wanted to see it. That's the most impressive home run I've ever seen.”

        NEW ROLE: Atlanta's Bobby Bonilla likes his bench role, which wouldn't have been considered possible a few years ago. This is just another reflection of Bobby Cox's excellence. The Braves manager leads everybody — stars, former stars and reserves alike — to realize how they fit into the team concept.

        Bonilla has found his niche as a pinch hitter and outfield substitute. His .391 pinch-hitting average is second in the league only to New York's Benny Agbayani, and his eight pinch-hit RBI are third-best in the majors.

        “The key is that Bobby has found a way to get me some at-bats (as a substitute),” Bonilla told the Augusta Chronicle. “And he has used me (to pinch hit) only when he's had to, and that's the way I like it. You feel like you're really part of the game, and your concentration level goes up a tad.”

        Bonilla is still being paid by the Mets, who were desperate to get rid of him after last season, so his Braves salary is the minimum $200,000. Eligible for free agency, he'll probably ask for more to return. But he might accept another low wage to stay in Atlanta.

        TISSUE ALERT: Los Angeles catcher Todd Hundley felt more than the usual empathy for Cara Grodsky, a 14-year-old girl who spent part of a day with him recently through the Make-A Wish program. Grodsky has Ewing's sarcoma, a form of cancer. Hundley's mother is also cancer-stricken.

        The day of Grodsky's visit, Hundley hit two home runs against New York.

        “I almost told Cara I'd hit her one, but I didn't want to jinx myself,” Hundley told reporters. “It was nice to put a performance like that on for her.

        “To have a girl that age going through what she's going through makes you realize that what we're doing is nothing in comparison. ... I'm going through it with my mom. I know how tough it can be, what a heartache it is.”

        PRINCIPAL PADRES: San Diego's Phil Nevin had reached base safely in 45 consecutive games through Friday, dating to July 3. He had hit .357 in that span with 13 doubles, 11 homers and 31 RBI.

        “I've never felt good for this long,” Nevin told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

        Nevin has helped fill the void left by Tony Gwynn, the eight-time batting champion who has been sidelined since June after undergoing knee surgery.

        Gwynn wants to play next year, but the Padres have an option on his contract. If they don't pick up the option by the day after the World Series, Gwynn becomes a free agent.

        Chris Haft welcomes your E-mail at haftkeem@aol.com

       



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