Sure it sounds incredible (they haven't even won division titles yet) but there's at least a possibility the Chicago Cubs and the Minnesota Twins will ''Houdini'' their way out of perennial second division finishes into the 1984 World Series.
The Cubs have been bona fide pennant contenders in the National League East ever since June when they solidified their pitching staff by getting right-hander Rick Sutcliffe from the Cleveland Indians. Sutcliffe is not only 12 -1 since joining Chicago, but currently has a streak of ten consecutive victories. Rick's hard slider is considered one of the best in the league - a pitch where the bottom seems to fall out just as the batter starts his swing.
Chicago is hitting .266 as a team (third best in the league), while spreading its RBI power among Ryne Sandberg, Ron Cey, Jody Davis, Leon Durham, Gary Matthews, and Keith Moreland. Manager Jim Frey hasn't been afraid to go with his instincts, either, including turning shortstop on the Cubs into a revolving position among Larry Bowa, Tom Veryzer, and rookie Dave Owen. Frey's shortstop move was prompted by the fact that Bowa is having an off year at the plate.
Minnesota, which had to struggle just to tie California for fifth place last year in the American League West, has emerged as one of the best young teams in baseball. Most of the Twins' key players (Kent Hrbek, Dave Engle, Gary Gaetti, Tim Teufel, Mickey Hatcher, and Tom Brunansky) have grown up together almost like brothers in a fraternity house. Later the club added center fielder Kirby Puckett, whose speed is reflected in the 18 times he has bunted for base hits.
Billy Gardner, the Minnesota manager, squeezed out 11 years for himself in the big leagues more on his toughness than his talent. Billy also paid his dues by managing 12 seasons in the minor leagues, and his sense of humor is legendary. For example, Gardner says that the Twins' new owner, millionaire Carl Pohlad, has so much money that he once bought a boy for his dog!
Although the Twins upset some of their fans during the off season when they traded hard-hitting outfielder Gary Ward to the Texas Rangers for pitchers Mike Smithson and John Butcher, the move now looks like a work of genius. With Hrbek among the league leaders in batting and RBIs, Brunansky up there in home runs, and the rest of the lineup producing in solid fashion, the offense has remained strong enough - and meanwhile Smithson and Butcher are both double-figure winners with 13 complete games between them. Toss in left-hander Frank Viola's outstanding season and the Twin's now have three excellent insurance policies against a losing streak. Elsewhere around the majors
* This is not meant to embarrass first baseman Steve Balboni, who has already hit 21 home runs this year for the Kansas City Royals, but Balboni did set a major league record recently by striking out in 11 consecutive official at-bats. That is a record for non-pitchers. However, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers still holds the major league mark with 12.
* He's quiet and he's got tons of class - not always found in all big league managers - and now Houston's Bob Lillis is finally beginning to get some recognition for his skills as a field leader too. The Astros don't have the personnel of either Los Angeles or Atlanta - and to make matters worse they lost shortstop Dickie Thon for the season with an injury in April. Despite all this, however, Lillis has his team going for second place in the NL West. Bob credits the surge to the fact that his players are beginning to hit consistently with runners on base.
* Those who questioned putting 25-year-old pitcher Dave Righetti, who won 14 games last year as a starter with the New York Yankees, into the club's bullpen this spring are now scrambling to get on the bandwagon. Dave's present rate of saves should put him well ahead of Goose Gossage's 1983 Yankee total of 22, and Righetti's earned-run average has been outstanding.
* New York Mets' right-hander Ron Darling was born in Hawaii; graduated from St. John's high school in Worcester, Mass.; played two years of football at Yale as a defensive back; and is something of an expert on Southeast Asian and French history. He also speaks French and Chinese and lists Thoreau among his favorite authors. After baseball, he plans to go to law school.
* The one thing baseball officials fear most about drug-addicted players is that maybe somewhere down the line, after getting in debt to a pusher, they might conspire with gamblers to fix a game. It hasn't happened yet, at least to anyone's knowledge, but in the private clubhouse talks concerning drugs that major league officials conduct with all teams, the seriousness of such potential misdeeds reportedly has been spelled out very clearly.
Baseball Standings and Statistics Complete through games of Monday Aug. 20 NATIONAL LEAGUE East W L Pct. GB Chicago 76 53 .589 -- New York 71 58 .550 5 Philadelphia 70 58 .547 5 1/2 Montreal 64 65 .496 12 St. Louis 64 65 .496 12 Pittsburgh 56 74 .431 20 1/2
West W L Pct. GB San Diego 76 54 .585 -- Houston 67 65 .508 10 Atlanta 65 65 .500 11 Los Angeles 63 68 .481 13 1/2 Cincinnati 54 76 .415 22 San Francisco 52 77 .403 23 1/2
Batting Average AD H Pct. Gwynn, S.D. 506 180 .356 Sandberg, Chi 519 167 .322 Cruz, Hou. 492 157 .319 Puhl, Hou. 351 112 .319 Brenly, S.F. 392 123 .314
Home Runs Murphy (Atl.) 28 Schmidt (Phil.) 26 Carter(Mont.) 24 Cey, (Chi.) 22
Runs Batted In Carter (Mont.) 94 Schmidt (Phil.) 87 Davis (Chi.) 82 Three tied with 79
Pitching (11 decisions) W-L Pct. Sutcliffe (Chi.) 12-1 .923 Horton (ST.L.) 8-3 .727 Trout (Chi.) 12-5 .706 Darling (N.Y.) 11-5 .688
Other leaders Runs - Sandberg (Chi.) 94. Hits - Gwynn (S.D.) 180. Doubles - Raines (Mont.) 31. Triples - Sandberg (Chi.) 16. Stolen Bases - Samuel (Phil.) 59. Strikeouts - Gooden (N.Y.) 214. Saves - Sutter (StL) 35.
AMERICAN LEAGUE East W L pct. GB Detroit 86 45 .656 -- Toronto 74 56 .569 11 1/2 Baltimore 71 59 .546 14 1/2 New York 70 60 .538 15 1/2 Boston 68 62 .523 17 1/2 Cleveland 58 74 .439 28 1/2 Milwaukee 55 76 .420 31
West W L Pct. GB Minnesota 68 62 .523 -- Kansas City 65 65 .500 3 California 63 67 .485 5 Chicago 61 68 .473 6 1/2 Oakland 60 72 .455 9 Texas 57 73 .438 11 Seattle 57 74 .435 11 1/2
Batting Average AD H Pct. Mattingly, N.Y. 474 166 .353 Winfield, N.Y. 447 157 .352 Hrbek, Minn. 453 145 .320 Murray, Balt. 473 149 .315 Barrett, Bos. 353 111 .314 Trammell, Det. 456 143 .314
Home Runs Armas (Bos.) 35 Kingman (Oak.) 32 Parrish (Det.) 29 Thornton (Clev.) 28 Two tied with 27
Runs Batted In Kingman (Oak.) 107 Rice (Bos.) 100 Armas (Bos.) 99 Murray (Balt.) 99 Davis (Sea.) 94
Pitching (11 decisions) W-L Pct. Leal (Tor.) 13-3 .813 Blyleven (Clev.) 15-5 .750 Stieb (Tor.) 13-5 .722
Other leaders Runs - Evans (Bos.) 102. Hits - Mattingly (N.Y.) 168. Doubles - Parrish (Tex.) 35. Triples - Moseby (Tor.) 13. Stolen Bases - Henderson (Oak.) 49. Strikeouts - Witt (Cal.) 159. Saves - Quisenberry (K.C.) 36.