Sunday, September 10, 2000

NL INSIDER




By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, St.Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants have all but officially sealed the league's postseason spots. But they still could generate a down-to-the-wire race, depending on their mindsets.

        Any of these teams could finish with the National League's best record. Only 31/2 games separated the worst of the four (New York) from the best (Atlanta). The importance of topping the league in winning percentage cannot be underestimated, since home-field advantage through the division and league championship series would come with it.

        So expect these clubs to keep playing hard into the regular season's final week. But don't expect them to do anything extreme, such as using a top starting pitcher on short rest just to eke out an extra victory. Cutthroat competition down the stretch sharpens teams, but it also can drain them. Managers would rather keep their players sharp but relaxed and casually align their pitching rotations for the playoffs instead of putting the roster into overdrive just to finish with the best regular-season mark.

        “You'd rather have everything set up and in place,” said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who has ushered his team into eight consecutive postseasons. “You'd always like to have your two best pitchers going in the first two games.”

        BURNITZ BAIT? Milwaukee's Jeromy Burnitz could be one of the top sluggers available through trade this offseason. He had hoped to obtain a contract extension beyond the 2001 season, but talks broke off earlier this year, which threw his name into several trade rumors.

        Brewers management also is said to be somewhat disenchanted with Burnitz, who was batting .227 through Friday. His power numbers — 24 home runs, 81 RBI — were down from his 1997-99 average of 33 homers and 104 RBI.

        “I would say a trade is a pretty good possibility,” Burnitz told Milwaukee-area reporters. “There obviously was a lot going on before the (July 31 trading) deadline and it didn't happen. For now, you just keep playing and try to do your best.”

        HELTON STYMIED: Todd Helton's quest for a .400 batting average and baseball immortality remains alive but barely breathing. A recent 5-for-31 skid dropped his average to .384, which rose to .386 after a 3-for-5 effort Friday night against Los Angeles.

        Still, the Colorado Rockies first baseman would have to hit nearly .500 for the rest of the season to reach .400, assuming he'd get four at-bats a game.

        Helton took a self-deprecating tone as he analyzed his slump for reporters covering the Rockies.

        “They've got me figured out,” he said. “Throw the ball right down the middle. I'm an easy out. Or throw it inside, or throw it high, or throw it outside or throw it at me and I'll probably get myself out.”

        INFAMY AVOIDED: Florida's Luis Castillo didn't want this kind of record. Despite his .343 batting average, the Marlins second baseman was threatening the 1971 record held by San Diego's Enzo Hernandez for fewest RBI in a season with 450 or more at-bats (12).

        Fortunately for Castillo, he drove in his 13th run last Sunday. “That's a 5,000-pound gorilla off his shoulders,” Marlins manager John Boles said.

        IMAGE-CONSCIOUS: Los Angeles left fielder Gary Sheffield served his five-game suspension stemming from the infamous in-the-stands brawl at Chicago's Wrigley Field on May 16, but that didn't put the matter behind him.

        Sheffield wants to meet with commissioner Bud Selig after the regular season to clear his name. The Dodgers' Most Valuable Player candidate has tried to build a reputation as being a hard worker, a positive clubhouse influence and an all-around good guy.

        This image has been jeopardized by Ronald Camacho, who's the plaintiff in a criminal misdemeanor case (the fight started when Dodgers catcher Chad Krueter's cap was swiped). Greg Adamski, Camacho's attorney, called Sheffield a “thug.” Sheffield has insisted all along that he was trying to be a peacemaker.

        CRAZY, MAN: Nobody is more surprised at San Francisco's West Division surge past Arizona and Los Angeles than the Giants themselves.

        “If you look at the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers, you think no way could we be up 71/2 games at this point in the season,” center fielder Marvin Benard told San Francisco-area reporters. “If you look at us on paper and you look at them on paper, it shouldn't be that way. The great thing is that you've still got to go out and play. Things are going right for us, and they're getting some tough breaks.”

        Including their New York origins and their five consecutive second-place finishes in the 1960s, the Giants own the unenviable distinction of blowing more Labor Day leads than any other franchise. But the sense is that manager Dusty Baker won't let them squander this one.

        “I don't preach anything,” Baker said. “Just go out and play that night. We're getting pretty close to the finish line, but there's still a long way to go.”

       



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