BASEBALL: WRAPPING UP THE REGULAR SEASON : Pendleton: A Day Off and a Title : Batting: His .319 average is one point better than the Reds' Hal Morris, who goes three for four.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A stand-up performance--in and out of the clubhouse--may earn Terry Pendleton the National League's most-valuable-player award, but the Atlanta Braves' third baseman was sitting Sunday when he won the batting title.

Pendleton, who had not sat out a game since June 14, did not appear in the regular season finale after the Braves clinched the West Division championship Saturday.

Manager Bobby Cox made the decision, and Pendleton didn't argue.

Thus, the .259 career hitter, crediting a fresh approach at the plate and a fresh outlook with his move to the Braves from the St. Louis Cardinals, won the batting crown at .319 and led the league in hits with 187.

Hal Morris finished second at .318 after going three for four Sunday at San Diego, and Tony Gwynn of the Padres, idle since Sept. 12 because of knee surgery, was third at .317.

"I could care less what other people think," Pendleton said, when asked if he might not be criticized for not playing Sunday.

"Bobby Cox makes out the lineup, and he told me yesterday that I wouldn't play today no matter what Morris might have done last night. I mean, if he can go out and pick up five points in one day, he deserves it."

Said Cox: "I know we have the next two days off (before the playoffs open in Pittsburgh Wednesday), but we travel and work out Tuesday, so it's not the same. Terry needed today off. I mean, I don't even know who's hitting what and I don't want to get into it."

Said Pendleton: "This has nothing to do with the batting title and everything to do with the total picture. Personal things are great, but I want to be ready for the playoffs.

"I've been banged up a little and need the rest. I didn't argue with Bobby because it wouldn't have done any good, and I wouldn't have played today even if Morris and my averages were reversed."

And, Pendleton might have added, after 153 games, 586 at-bats and the type of finish that an MVP candidate could be expected to produce (a .353 average in the final 28 games of a dramatic race), he doesn't need to apologize.

"If someone had told me before the season that I was going to win the title, I'd have said it was a mistake.

"I'd have said that Tony Gwynn and Willie McGee would have to be hurt, and both have been.

"But now I'd also say that it's not a mistake. I've worked hard. I feel I've earned it and deserve it. I've been wrapped up in the race with the Dodgers, but I can think about it (the batting title) now.

"It's definitely exciting, something that will always be at the top of my list, and the big thing is that you have to go out as an individual and do it. You have to beat everyone in the league.

"As far as the MVP, that's in the hands of the writers. The batting title? That's something I won on my own."

Pendleton, who never hit more than .286 in seven seasons with St. Louis, said the difference stemmed from "a feeling of being wanted again" and a determination to swing only at strikes.

He hit a career high 22 homers and drove in 86 runs.

Said Cox: "I figured he'd drive in 80 runs and bat about .270. He's done a lot more. I've been saying for a long time that I thought he was the league's MVP. He's certainly been ours."

The Braves rebuilt the infield at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium during the winter and signed free agents Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard and Pendleton to play on it, stabilizing a porous defense.

A frequent winner of the Gold Glove as the National League's best defensive third baseman, Pendleton has made 24 errors, but his range, hands and arm are a significant improvement on a parade of 19 pretenders who had appeared at third base for the Braves since 1986.

"I wouldn't have won 20 without the changes in the infield," Tom Glavine said Sunday. "We closed a lot of holes. It had an impact on how all of us pitched."

Pendleton and Bream, coming off championship experiences with the Cardinals and Pirates, contributed in other ways as well.

"Sid and I both felt any kind of turnaround here had to begin in spring training," Pendleton said. "We both felt that the Braves had always kind of gone through the motions in the spring.

"The two of us talked about it, and tried to say, 'the enthusiasm and the attitude starts here, starts now. We have to get after it with the first spring game.' I think it had an impact. I told people coming out of spring training I thought we could be competitive."

Cox urged Pendleton to take on a leadership role, and there are myriad examples of how he did it:

--Telling talented Mark Wohlers to get "his butt in gear" when he felt Wohlers was going through the motions on the mound.

--Challenging Ron Gant to a fight in the dugout tunnel as a method of releasing Gant's frustration so that he didn't carry his failures at the plate on the field.

--Counseling rookies Brian Hunter and Keith Mitchell on the subject of responsibility after their recent drunk-driving arrests, providing them with his phone number so they would always have a designated driver and, according to reports, angrily confronting teammate David Justice, who had been with the two young players.

Pendleton denied that he and Justice argued, but "I may have said something to the effect of 'David, how could you let it happen?' "

Said second baseman Jeff Treadway: "He showed us how to win, how to act in a pennant race."

Pendleton signed with the Braves for $10.4 million over four years. St. Louis made no attempt to keep him, and he had no interest in returning after a bitter arbitration experience before the 1990 season erased his respect for General Manager Dal Maxvill.

He was so convinced that Maxvill and then-manager Whitey Herzog were operating on different wavelengths that he refused to sign with the Braves until he could have a three-way phone conversation with Cox and GM John Schuerholz.

"I said, 'If you're not thinking on the same level, I might as well hang up right now,' " Pendleton recalled. "I went through that in St. Louis. Whitey and Dal never saw eye-to-eye, and you can't win that way."

Pendleton's contract drew criticism, but the signing draws only praise now. The .230 hitter of last year is a batting champion on his way to the playoffs and a possible MVP award. The 30-year-old Oxnard resident smiled and said, "I'm a dreamer, and this is a dream come true."

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