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Baseball / Ross Newhan : Met Hopes May Hinge on Making Deal for Twins’ Viola

Haunted by their inability to acquire pitcher Mark Langston from the Seattle Mariners, the New York Mets’ season may rest on their attempt to get Frank Viola from the Minnesota Twins.

The deal will have to be consummated by Monday morning, after which no player can be traded without first passing through waivers.

The Montreal Expos have a 2 1/2-game lead over the Chicago Cubs and a six-game lead over the Mets and St. Louis in the National League East after defeating the Cardinals Saturday night.

The Expos are 37-20 since making the winning offer for Langston, who has an 8-3 record in that span.

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The acquisition convinced Montreal players that management was willing to pay the price to win now, boosting spirit. It also stabilized a pitching staff that has replaced the Mets as the division’s best.

The Expos began the Cardinal series with a 2.37 earned-run average since June 20. Langston is 6-1 in his last seven starts, Dennis Martinez has a 1989 record of 12-1, Bryn Smith boasts the major leagues’ second-best earned-run average of 2.03, and the eccentric Pascual Perez is 5-3 after an 0-7 start.

The Mets, meanwhile, could be in trouble. Ron Darling and Bob Ojeda have pitched inconsistently from the start. Dwight Gooden won’t return from his shoulder injury until mid-August, if then. Wally Whitehurst and David West don’t appear ready.

Langston has helped make the Expos stronger and the Mets weaker. Viola is a must for New York, and you can forget his 8-12 record this year.

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Over his last 100 starts, he has a 52-31 record, a 2.98 ERA and had averaged 7 2/3 innings. He has started 235 consecutive games, never missing a start because of injury. Even amid the inconsistency of 1989 he is headed for career highs in innings pitched, complete games and strikeouts.

The timing is right for the Mets--and the Twins, who need to rebuild their rotation.

New York has reportedly offered pitchers West, Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani. The Twins like West and Tapani, but would prefer Darling over Aguilera and, in addition, covet one of two prospects--infielder Keith Miller or pitcher Julio Valera.

The three-year, $7.9-million contract Viola recently signed with the Twins is no obstacle. The Mets would even have to pay the $1.1-million signing bonus, since it isn’t due until Dec. 31, but consider it a small price for reviving hope in a season in which Langston has already given hope and more to the Expos.

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The San Francisco Giants’ Kevin Mitchell, with his 33 home runs in 103 games through Saturday, is significantly behind the record pace of Babe Ruth in 1927 and Roger Maris in 1961, but his pace has improved each month, indicating that Mitchell hasn’t yielded to pressure or the lack of protection behind him. The breakdown:

--April: Six homers in 96 at-bats or, one every 16 at-bats.

--May: Nine homers in 98 at-bats, or one every 10.9.

--June: Ten homers in 89 at-bats or, one every 8.9.

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--July: Eight homers in 64 at-bats, or one every 8.0.

How many home runs would Mitchell hit if he played his home games in the launching pad that is Atlanta Stadium? In seven games there this year, Mitchell has 17 runs batted in, a .404 batting average and seven homers in 44 at-bats, or one every 6.3.

Believing that his Houston Astros are one power hitter away from the National League West title, first baseman Glenn Davis urged the Astros to take the step.

“A team is rarely in position to sniff a championship,” Davis said the other day. “We either have to go for it right now or build for the future.

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“We’ve got a veteran team here. Pretty soon some of our guys will be too old. We need to give up some young players or money for a player who can help us.

“If they want to win a championship, they’ll do it.”

Houston rumors have centered on left fielder George Bell of the Toronto Blue Jays but the Astros are concerned about Bell’s defense and personality, and are reportedly reluctant to meet Toronto’s asking price: Gerald Young.

With her team devastated by injuries, distracted by Pete Rose’s survival drive and destroyed by a siege of losses that reached 31 in 41 games before the weekend, owner Marge Schott of the Cincinnati Reds evicted Manager Rose from the clubhouse the other day and conducted her own team meeting.

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“How about prayer?” she asked the players at one point. “Do you think prayer would work?”

The ensuing silence was embarrassing. Finally, third baseman Chris Sabo stood and said, “I don’t think God gives a . . . whether we hit or not. If God cared, Billy Graham would hit .400.”

Since June 29, middle relief pitcher Jeff Brantley of the Giants has a 6-0 record. In contrast, the Reds started the weekend having won only five games in that span.

In the latest twist in the disappointing summer of Gary Sheffield, the Milwaukee Brewers’ touted shortstop and nephew of Gooden, the Brewers had to recall Sheffield from Denver Wednesday because it was determined they had sent him out July 14 with a broken right foot. Sheffield was put on the 21-day disabled list and sent to his Florida home to rest.

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An injured player can’t be optioned, but the Brewers, in a bad season for the medical staff, have tried it three times now. Pitchers Tom Filer and Mike Birkbeck also were sent out with injuries, only to be returned and put on the disabled list.

On Sheffield’s injury, General Manager Harry Dalton employed some Stengelese, saying, “It wasn’t undiagnosed, just undetected.”

He then added: “We had hoped to send him to Denver to get squared away, but this chops a month off that. A month isn’t a long time in terms of his career, but it is a long time in terms of what we were hoping for this season.”

In the meantime, replacement Billy Speiers began a weekend series in Texas with 12 hits in his last 29 at-bats and having helped turn 14 double plays in the last five games.

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The Rangers put former Dodger Charlie Hough on the disabled list the other day, and for the first time in a 23-year career it was because of an arm problem. Hough, 5-11 with a 5.06 ERA, said it was overdue.

“I probably should have told them in May that I needed some rest,” he said.

“But I’ve pitched with pain for so long--I mean, I didn’t pick up the knuckleball just as an extra pitch--that it’s tough to tell when the pain threshold is passed.”

Texas catcher Chad Kreuter, a Pepperdine product and son-in-law of USC baseball Coach Mike Gillespie, has been enduring pain of another kind.

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His .148 batting average and 15 passed balls entering the weekend had left him the object of fan abuse.

“They’re all over me for balls in the dirt that bounce away,” he said. “If you’re just a fan drinking all the beer you can before the seventh inning (when the taps are closed), you want to take your aggression out on me because we’re losing. That’s upsetting, but it’s the nature of the business.”

For five years, a Toronto supermarket chain sponsored a contest during Blue Jay broadcasts in which a listener’s name was drawn during a designated inning and awarded $25,000 if the Blue Jays hit a grand slam.

For five years, there was not even one grand slam hit during the designated inning, so this year the prize was increased to $50,000.

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And, of course, the Blue Jays lead the majors with seven slams, including three during the designated inning. The latest was hit by Lloyd Moseby after the first two prompted the market chain to take out insurance.

The early-season acquisition of shortstop Rey Quinones from the Seattle Mariners merely cost the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Mike Dunne and two top prospects. Quinones, batting .209 with 19 errors, was released the other day, and Pirate Manager Jim Leyland said:

“We heard he was a bad guy with a lot of talent. It turns out he was a hell of a guy but he couldn’t play.”

Bo Jackson became the 11th Kansas City player to be put on the disabled list this season.

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“Part of the game,” Manager John Wathan said. “Everybody’s had it, though it seems California has had it less than us.”

Indeed. The Angels have had to put only five players on the list, a pivotal factor in the West, where the Oakland A’s have matched the Royals’ total with 11.

Ricky Horton might still be a Dodger if it weren’t for his former team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Horton pitched 25 1/3 innings this year and gave up 36 hits, including 21 in just 11 1/3 innings against St. Louis.

He was re-signed by the Cardinals after his release by the Dodgers, sent briefly to Louisville and recalled this weekend.

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“I guess this comes under the department of, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’ ” Horton said.

A hotel foul-up forced the New York Yankees to stay in very suburban Westlake, Ohio, during a series in Cleveland this week. The only thing near the hotel is a gas station.

“One of the guys got into a cab outside the hotel and said he wanted to go to the ballpark,” pitcher Dave LaPoint said. “The cab driver said, ‘Which one--Pittsburgh, Detroit or Cleveland? They’re all about the same distance.’ ”


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