BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Cardinals Take Offense to All the Slights

This isn't about adding insult to injury.

The St. Louis Cardinals say they were insulted, even before the injuries that have forced them to play with as many as nine players on the disabled list in the first six weeks.

They were insulted by the preseason predictions that seemed to ignore their surprising 84-78 record and second-place finish in the National League East last year.

All the experts seemed to be riding the New York Mets' 1992 bandwagon. A few thought the Pittsburgh Pirates could repeat again. The Cardinals? It would be strictly blues in St. Louis.

"I don't think enough people took us seriously off what we did last year," Manager Joe Torre said the other day.

No problem, because the Cardinals take themselves seriously.

"We like what we feel about ourselves," he said. "We have a lot of confidence right now. We know we can play with anybody. We think we can win this division."

The Cardinals entered a weekend series against the Houston Astros with a 23-17 record that put them half a game behind the division-leading Pirates and 1 1/2 ahead of the Mets.

They not only have weathered the injuries, they have prospered, in some cases, because of them. Or as Torre said: "It makes good theater to talk about all the injuries, but we've found some answers, too."

--Second baseman Luis Alicea, optioned to Louisville twice and recalled twice since March, has played so well that Jose Oquendo will be a spectator when he is activated next week.

--Donovan Osborne was summoned to replace Bryn Smith, who has had elbow surgery, and is 5-2 after winning Saturday night.

--Bob Tewksbury is 5-1 with an earned-run average of 1.80.

--Outfielder Brian Jordan, the Atlanta Falcon safety, was recalled when Felix Jose opened the season with a hamstring pull and has since stolen some of the spotlight from friend and Falcon teammate Deion Sanders, who is playing well for the Atlanta Braves.

Jordan leads the Cardinals in home runs and, like Sanders, could soon have a contract making him a full-time baseball player.

His two-sport involvement limited him to fewer than 500 at-bats in four minor league seasons, and Torre said his performance since his recall could be compared to a roller coaster.

"But he doesn't get discouraged," Torre added. "He has the physical and mental toughness of a football player.

"He's had a lot of big hits with two strikes when it looked like he was overmatched.

"He won't knock your eyes out with the length of his home runs, like Bo Jackson, but he'd probably hit 20, drive in 80 to 100 runs and bat .270 or more (playing full time). And defensively, he's outstanding."

Todd Worrell has returned from more than two years of elbow and shoulder rehabilitation to join Lee Smith as a closer. Said Torre: "When you talk about teams that can win a pennant, you look at their bullpens first. There aren't too many better than Smith and Worrell."

Joe Magrane, who sat out last season because of elbow surgery, could rejoin the rotation in two weeks.

Felix Jose, whose acquisition from the Oakland Athletics for Willie McGee in August of 1990 appears to be a steal, has made an explosive return, passing Jordan for the club lead in RBIs in 20 games.

Andres Galarraga, who suffered a broken right wrist during the second game of the season, returned to first base Friday night, displacing Pedro Guerrero, who went on the disabled list because of a leg injury.

Torre isn't doing it with mirrors. Tom Pagnozzi should be the All-Star catcher. Outfielders Ray Lankford and Bernard Gilkey are laughing at the sophomore jinx. Ozzie Smith, who once thought he would have been traded by now, is still providing stability and a little wizardry at shortstop. Todd Zeile has made a successful transition to third base. And the Cardinals, former manager Whitey Herzog said recently, might have baseball's deepest pitching.

In the transition from the Herzog era, from the years of McGee, Vince Coleman and Terry Pendleton, the Cardinals have retained that familiar speed and gap-hitting versatility, but regained some misplaced motivation.

"The young players are hungry," Torre said. "They work hard and play hard, and this city appreciates that. There's a Gashouse Gang approach again, and I think the club had gotten away from that for a while."

SEEKING CLOSURE

Worrell has been scored on only once in 19 comeback innings. He has been employed strictly as Smith's setup man, but feels there is no question about his ability to serve as a closer again and no question that the Cardinals have one too many.

The former Biola College right-hander says he will be allowed to leave as a free agent after this season, or will be retained with a multiyear contract that would lead to the Cardinals trading Smith, who is eligible for free agency after next season.

"The only prediction I have is that Lee and I won't be pitching on the same team next year," Worrell said. "I can guarantee that."

TWO PLATOON

As the Cardinals try to sign Jordan to an exclusive baseball contract, the Braves are attempting to do the same with Sanders.

If Sanders stays (his Brave contract expires July 31), Otis Nixon may go on the trading block, giving the Angels a chance to revive their interest of last winter.

Sanders and Nixon, sharing center field, are forming an effective leadoff platoon. Through Thursday, they were a combined .361 with 35 runs and 22 stolen bases.

Many in Atlanta would like to see right fielder David Justice, who has a .190 batting average and an equally low popularity rating among the Braves, benched or traded, allowing Nixon and Sanders to operate in the same lineup. Nixon suggested that he would like to see it, too, "but I'm not the manager or general manager. It's not up to me."

"All I'm saying," he said, "is that the way I'm swinging and the way Deion is hitting, we could do a lot of damage. When I think of what we could do together, I get chills."

NO-WAY JOSE

Mark McGwire has been through it before. He had 33 home runs at the All-Star break of his rookie season in 1987, winding up with 49.

Each time he picked up a newspaper, it seemed, there was a comparison to the home run pace of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.

With his current pace projecting into the 70s, McGwire is faced with the possibility of reliving that experience. He shook his head the other day and said, "Makes me shiver to even think about it."

Not to worry. A's Bash Brother Jose Canseco said McGwire won't eclipse the Maris and Ruth totals of 61 and 60 homers in a season.

No disrespect, Canseco said. In fact, it has everything to do with respect.

"If they pitch to him he can do it," Canseco said. "But sooner or later they're going to stop pitching to him. He may not see a fastball the entire second half."

Besides, Canseco said, there are too many variables--injuries, slumps, the dense night air of the Oakland Coliseum.

"All the odds are against him," Canseco said. "It would be awesome if he hit 50."

TIME BOMB

Commissioner Fay Vincent might not have time on his hands, but he has it on his mind again, suggesting, as he did last year, that the length of games is out of control.

"It's a major problem that we have not done a good job of addressing," he said.

Vincent tried. He organized a winter meeting of executives, managers, players, union officials and umpires to discuss the situation, but the Players Assn. backed out, a source said, because it did not want to sit at the same table with umpires. The union recanted later, but by then it was early spring and too late to get everyone together.

Vincent is certain to make another try next winter, unless the issue is superseded by a reopening of collective bargaining talks. In the meantime, the clock is ticking.

The average length of American League games through last Sunday was 2 hours 54 minutes, up two minutes from last year and up 17 in a 10-year span. Five American League teams are averaging more than three hours, headed by the A's at 3:02.

The average time of National League games is 2:46, same as last year and up nine minutes from 1982 and 21 from 1978. The Dodgers are playing the longest at 2:57. No wonder fans leave in the seventh inning.

"Baseball is losing its audience, particularly its young audience," said Seymour Siwoff of the Elias News Bureau, baseball's official statistics house.

Siwoff has considered and rejected several theories for the long games. He puts it at the feet of batters for stepping in and out of the box on every pitch, which is an obvious factor, but there would seem to be more.

--Commercial time between innings has been lengthened by 30 seconds in recent years. In many cases, there is almost 2 1/2 minutes between the last pitch of an inning and the first pitch of the next.

--There are more pitching changes in the era of the six-inning starter. There are also more walks and errors in the era of force feeding young players.

--Umpires say they cannot be timekeepers and do not enforce a rule that requires pitchers to deliver a pitch every 20 seconds when no one is on base. The rule calls for ejection of the pitcher and his manager if violated, but that would only create more delays, the umpires say.

--The umpires do not call the high strike as defined in the rulebook, largely out of habit, their own views of the strike zone and concern about the reaction from the bench.

--The designated hitter adds time to American League games.

All of those might contribute, deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg said, but "Fay and I would like to know how the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds can average close to two and a half hours (2:33), while so many other teams need more than three."

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