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West belongs to L.A., but not pennant

The National League is not used to this sort of thing. And the Dodgers are dang sure unfamiliar with it.

The franchise that has turned out more NL champions than any other has gone eight seasons without a World Series appearance. It is the team's longest dry spell since the Dodgers were in Brooklyn in the 1930s.

If that was not enough to create a sense of urgency in Chez Ravine, the O'Malley family has placed a For Sale sign in front of Dodger Stadium.

Los Angeles has flirted with the World Series in recent years _ the Dodgers were swept in the 1995 and '96 division playoffs _ but it has not won a post-season game since Kirk Gibson and Co. finished off the Athletics in Game 5 of the 1988 World Series.

"The past few years have been kind of lackadaisical," centerfielder Brett Butler said. "Let's face it, we've lost six playoff games in a row. If it's not eating at somebody, it's eating at me."

The Dodgers swore last year they were World Series contenders, but they ended up wasting most of their energy recovering from a horrible start. That should not be a problem in 1997.

Bill Russell starts his first full season as manager and may bring more focus and discipline to the field.

"I think the experience of going through that the last two years has caused us to be more intense this year, a more businesslike approach," first baseman Eric Karros said. "It's not so much reflection of a (managerial) change, but what we have not accomplished the last two years."

The starting pitching ranks among the top three rotations in baseball, and the middle of the lineup has four guys who should hit at least 25 home runs.

San Diego is capable of giving the Dodgers a run, but the West should be Los Angeles' for the taking.

As for the pennant, here are four reasons Los Angeles may be stumped for a ninth straight season:

John Smoltz.

Greg Maddux.

Tom Glavine.

Denny Neagle.

Starting pitching has carried Atlanta to four of the past five World Series, and there is little to indicate a drop-off.

Smoltz is coming off his best season, and Maddux and Glavine have the incentive of impending free agency. Between them, the three have won the past six Cy Young Awards.

There's a perception that Atlanta's offense has dipped, but the Braves finished tied for second in the NL in batting average, second in home runs and fourth in runs scored.

After winning the East in a walk the past two years, the Braves also might do better with Florida pushing them.

The Marlins bought themselves into contention with a spate of free-agent signings that should at least add up to the wild-card spot. If not, Florida is going to look a little silly for the millions it spent on Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou.

The Central has been a shade above the West and a cut below the East since the start of the three-division format. This season it probably will bring up the rear.

Only the Cubs made significant changes in the off-season, and they might find themselves challenging defending champion St. Louis and the perennially underachieving Astros.