PITCHERS ON THEIR GAME : Home Runs Down; 62 Shutouts Recorded

Associated Press Baseball Writer

Get ready to lower the mound or bring back the rabbit ball. Pitchers are ahead of hitters again.

Home runs are way down. So are balks. Shutouts are about even with last season. It just seems there are more this spring.

But it is no illusion. Kirk McCaskill, Roger Clemens and other pitchers are flourishing while Gary Carter, Don Mattingly and many big-name batters are flopping.

"I know I'm off to a slow start, but I've had bad periods like this before," said Carter, hitting just .114 with only one home run for the New York Mets.

"It's just magnified because it's at the beginning of the season," he said. "If this was the middle of the season, no one would notice."

Mattingly is in another of his early-season slumps. He has not hit a home run and is batting .241 for the New York Yankees.

'Sick and Tired of It'

"This has happened to me before, but I'm getting sick and tired of it," Mattingly said. "I just want to start hitting well again."

Overall, home runs are down 13% in the American League and off 12% in the National League contrasted with the same time last season.

Last year, home runs dipped 28.7% in both leagues. That decrease came after an all-time record 4,458 home runs in 1987.

"The weather in the East has been terrible this year, and I think that has something to do with it. It's just hard to hit when the temperature is 50 everyday and you're playing in a drizzle half the time," Yankees manager Dallas Green said. "We haven't taken batting practice on a regular basis because of the conditions."

Some hitters are already in the swing. Kevin Mitchell, Mark McGwire, Mike Schmidt, Will Clark, Julio Franco and Darryl Strawberry are among those doing what they do best.

Then there are the Wilsons. Willie is batting .180, and Mookie is at .189. Candy Maldonado, John Kruk and rookie Gregg Jefferies are under .200 with Lloyd Moseby, Shawon Dunston, John Shelby and Rich Gedman below that, not even hitting their weight.

Pitchers, meanwhile, continue to rule. For 29 straight days, starting April 10, there was at least one shutout somewhere in the major leagues.

"Basically, it was a coincidence. Shutouts are not up significantly this year," Seymour Siwoff, head of the Elias Sports Bureau, said. "But the early evidence points to another decline in hitting."

There have been 62 shutouts this year; there were 60 at the same time last season.

Only Houston has not been shut out. Cincinnati got blanked in three straight games for the first time since 1951 and has been shut out six times.

Surprisingly, the Mets, who pitched 22 shutouts last year and had seven at this time, are one of three teams without one.

The California Angels, who had nine in 1988, have seven shutouts so far.

"I don't think the staff ever doubted that we had the ability," said McCaskill, who leads the AL with an 0.89 earned run average. "It was a matter of health and consistency."

Mike Morgan, traded from Baltimore to Los Angeles before the season, leads the majors with an 0.69 ERA. Dave Stewart is the top winner at 6-0 with Dwight Gooden at 5-1 and Clemens at 4-1.

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