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BASEBALL: THE SECOND HALF // On to the RACES

The first half of the baseball season was something. Home run derbies. No-hitters. Wild comebacks. Close pennant races.

The second half has a chance to be something special.

Between the individual players chasing offensive records, the closely packed races, the potential for trades of several impact players, and a high number of star-quality players coming back from injuries, the next 12 weeks could be very entertaining.

Consider this: Despite all the crazy offensive numbers, Baltimore home run basher Brady Anderson and the other wall-bangers will actually have to do better in the second half if Roger Maris' home run record is going to fall.

"The second half is the toughest half of the season," said Oakland's Mark McGwire, who was on a record home run pace as a rookie in 1987 and finished with 49. "It's difficult for a player to repeat in the second half what he did in the first half."

Teams have it tough too. During the past 10 full seasons, only two-thirds of the teams (28 of 42) leading their divisions at the All-Star break went on to win.

There's no reason to think this season will be any easier. No team has a lead of more than six games, and the competition is keener because more clubs are staying in the race in hope of winning the wild card.

Add in the possible trades of some big-name players _ Kansas City pitcher Kevin Appier, Philadelphia catcher Benito Santiago, Minnesota second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and Toronto outfielder Joe Carter among the possibilities _ and the pending return of some injured stars _ such as Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, Yankees pitcher David Cone and Rockies outfielder Larry Walker _ and there is lot of drama to come.

"I've always felt that pennants are not won in the first half," Baltimore's Cal Ripken said. "The first half is important. But to me the pennant is won in the second half."

Here's a look at how that might happen:

AL EAST: One of the top teams has been steady, quiet and able to navigate a number of injuries and personnel moves with barely a peep. The other has been disappointing, controversial, laden with unproductive players and criticized by a meddling owner.

What's amazing is the Yankees are the first team and the Orioles are the second.

Despite the loss of ace David Cone and several setbacks to left-hander Jimmy Key, the Yankees have the largest lead of any team and the best record in the American League.

With Key healthy (three straight wins, no earned runs in 19 innings), Dwight Gooden on target and Darryl Strawberry's apparently again-lively bat in the lineup, it just might take a distraction _ by, George _ to derail this team, which opens a four-game series in Baltimore tonight.

"It's been great," reliever John Wetteland said. "Gee whiz, we're 19 games over .500, we're playing great baseball and it's a lot of fun to come to work every day. We're winning a lot of different ways and we're winning by executing in key situations. That's fun baseball."

The Orioles' key man in the second half will be general manager Pat Gillick. It may take one _ or maybe a couple _ of his patented late-season trades to get this team up to its potential.

AL CENTRAL: A funny thing happened to the Indians on their return trip to the World Series: The rest of the AL got in the way.

The club that was supposedly improved over last year's team, which won 100 games and led the league in batting, runs, home runs and pitching, has been highly vulnerable. Between controversy and injury, the Indians have been downright ordinary (19-21) the past six weeks. 1B Mark Carreon, acquired from San Francisco, hardly seems a savior.

"We expected there would be some tough days, and there have been," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. "There's more better clubs in the AL. I expect the second half to be tough."

The White Sox won five of eight games between the teams in the past two weeks and, buoyed by their starting pitching, are playing up to potential. But a foot injury that may sideline star slugger Frank Thomas (.349, 23 homers, 85 RBI) could be devastating.

"We could have been better and we could have been worse," manager Terry Bevington said. "We'll see what happens."

AL WEST: The Seattle Mariners can't wait to see what happens in the second half. Playing without Griffey, Johnson, pitchers Chris Bosio and Tim Davis, 3B Russ Davis (and for an earlier stretch Jay Buhner), the Mariners have managed to stay in the race.

Better yet, most of them will soon be back soon. "Hopefully, we can continue what we've done in the first half," Griffey said.

The first-place Rangers are battling history to do the same. The Rangers and fourth-year Marlins are the only two franchises never to have been involved in post-season play, and manager Johnny Oates thinks this is the team to do it.

He also thinks this is the Texas team to overcome the stigma of folding in the summer heat. Given that a number of Rangers regulars (including Ivan Rodriguez, Dean Palmer and Ken Hill) have traditionally dropped off in the second half, and that the bullpen already is falling apart, Oates might not be the only one sweating it out.

NL EAST: The Braves are 21 games over .500, hold a five-game lead, once again have the best pitching staff in baseball and seem to have compensated for the seemingly major loss of rightfielder David Justice.

So how do they feel? So-so.

"I think most of the guys think we probably should have done a little better," Chipper Jones said. "We had pretty high expectations. We're pretty happy to be five games up, but most guys would rather be 10 up."

The Braves' biggest challenge in the second half will come down the road _ the 19-day, 17-game, five-city trip they'll be on during the Olympics. "Don't talk to me about our trip," said Fred McGriff.

The second-place Expos once again have exceeded expectations to be this close given their payroll constraints. What's different this year is talk they may add a player for the stretch run rather than give one up. 1B David Segui is hurt, but OF Rondell White is due back next week.

NL CENTRAL: Of all the divisions, this one has the potential to be the most exciting. "It's anybody's race," said Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith. "I don't think anyone has played as well as they'd like."

Indeed, each team has had a stretch when it looked like the best team in the division and one when it looked like the worst.

Houston, which ran off a seven-game winning streak, appears to have its pitching straightened out. The veteran Cardinals are starting to play consistently under new manager Tony La Russa.

The Reds have been up-and-down all season and may not be able to recover from injuries to ace Pete Schourek, 1B Hal Morris and 3B Willie Greene. The Cubs haven't been able to hit consistently, but have been kicking around .500 because of pitching and defense and are said to have the funds for a big acquisition. The Pirates, well, there's always that new stadium to play for.

"I think it's going to be fun," Houston's Craig Biggio said. "Everyone has a chance to win and that's what's going to make it fun."

NL WEST: The team with the most healthy players on Sept. 29 may be declared the division winner.

Each of the four teams has been missing key players: Dodgers, OF Brett Butler, plus manager Tommy Lasorda; Rockies, OF Larry Walker and Ps Bill Swift and Bret Saberhagen; Padres, RF Tony Gwynn, P Andy Ashby and 1B Wally Joyner; and Giants, RF Glenallen Hill.

"We're kind of beat up and the Padres are beat up," Rockies OF Dante Bichette said. "The Dodgers are kind of healthy, so they're probably the favorites. But I don't see anyone running away with it."

AL East

W L Pct. GB

New York 52 33 .612 _

Baltimore 46 39 .541 6

Toronto 38 49 .437 15

Boston 36 49 .424 16

Detroit 27 61 .307 26{

Wild cards

American League

Team Rec GB

ChiSox 50-37 _

Mariners 46-39 3

Orioles 46-39 3

Brewers 43-43 6{

Angels 43-45 7{

Athletics 43-45 7{

National League

Team Rec GB

Expos 49-38 _

Astros 47-42 3

Dodgers 47-42 3

Rockies 42-44 6{

Reds 39-43 7{

Cubs 41-46 8

Mets 41-46 8

AL Central

W L Pct. GB

Cleveland 52 35 .598 _

Chicago 50 37 .575 2

Milwaukee 43 43 .500 8{

Minnesota 41 45 .477 10{

Kansas City 38 50 .432 14{

AL West

W L Pct. GB

Texas 51 36 .586 _

Seattle 46 39 .541 4

California 43 45 .489 8{

Oakland 43 45 .489 8{

If the playoffs started today . . .

American League

Yankees vs. Indians

White Sox vs. Rangers

National League

Expos vs. Padres

Cardinals vs. Braves

NL East

W L Pct. GB

Atlanta 54 33 .621 _

Montreal 49 38 .563 5

New York 41 46 .471 13

Florida 40 47 .460 14

Philadelphia 37 49 .430 16{

NL Central

W L Pct. GB

St. Louis 46 41 .529 _

Houston 47 42 .528 _

Cincinnati 39 43 .476 4{

Chicago 41 46 .471 5

Pittsburgh 39 46 .448 7

NL West

W L Pct. GB

San Diego 48 41 .539 _

Los Angeles 47 42 .528 1

Colorado 42 44 .488 4{

San Francisco 38 48 .442 8{

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