At midseason, defending division champs are playing catch-up

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In the 1970s, repeat division champions were routine. Oakland once won five American League West titles in a row, while Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and the New York Yankees all won two or three straight from time to time. The feat has become much rarer in the '80s, however - and this year doesn't look like any exception so far. Where, for example, are 1986 division champions Boston, California, Houston, and the New York Mets?

First place is not the answer, though both the Mets and Astros have begun to show definite signs of getting their acts together, and the Angels are still within striking distance.

The Mets, with manager Davey Johnson continuing to rebuild an injury-wracked pitching staff, still hope to make a fight of it in the National League East. For now, though, this division belongs to St. Louis, whose team balance and road record are among the best in baseball. The Cardinals' pitching didn't seem that good, especially early in the season when the bullpen was shaky. Yet now almost every time manager Whitey Herzog leaves a wake-up call for his relievers, they end up putting opposing hitters to sleep.

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Elsewhere in the NL East both Montreal and the Chicago Cubs have played well, although not well enough to be considered legitimate contenders, while Pittsburgh's youth movement still needs time to mature, and Philadelphia has struggled all season.

In the NL West, first-place Cincinnati got where it is with a great April, a less than impressive May, and a slightly more productive June. Even with starters who seldom complete anything, the Reds could still win because of a deep bullpen plus production hitters like Eric Davis, Dave Parker, Tracy Jones, and Kal Daniels.

The Astros would be more believable as a potential repeater if they could win more often on the road. They also need a second-half surge from pitchers Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper, who won only six games between them in the first two months.

Until San Francisco's June swoon, the Giants looked almost as good as Cincinnati and Houston except for an inability to win in the supposedly friendly confines of Candlestick Park.

The three taillights in this division are Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Diego, all of whom are going through major overhauls. Forget them.

Toronto, the team nobody knows or maybe everybody just forgot, had an 11-game winning streak in June that carried it past the Yankees and temporarily into first place in the American League East. Since then, however, the Blue Jays have performed like an airplane that has suddenly lost its power, at one point losing eight games in a row.

Now not only do the Yankees look better, but so do the hard-charging Detroit Tigers, currently one of the best hitting teams in the league.

Boston's defending champions, even with Wade Boggs hitting around .380, will probably wind up as either the best fourth- or fifth-place team in baseball. Milwaukee should occupy the other of these two spots. The struggling Baltimore Orioles are still without the thing that once made them great, exceptional pitching, while Cleveland will know better next time not to enter a revolving door from the left.

In the AL West, the baseball world can't seem to get enough of those youthful Minnesota Twins, Oakland A's, and Seattle Mariners. Blink and the Twins have somebody on base. Blink again and the've scored. If Jeff Reardon can relieve in 90 games without his arm falling off, Minnesota could go all the way.

Oakland probably has the AL's most exciting young player in first baseman Mark McGwire, who recently hit five home runs in two games and already has 30 with the season just at the halfway mark. But pitching is a big maybe for the A's in terms of sustaining their present pace for a full season.

Seattle, which has never had a winning season since becoming an expansion franchise in 1977, may finally put an end to that dubious distinction. The Mariners could also have the Manager of the Year in Dick Williams, who is a whiz at developing kids.

Kansas City, the team that was supposed to run away with this division and isn't that far back right now, has a history of strong, second-half finishes. Providing pitcher Bret Saberhagen continues to have a Cy Young Award season, the Royals still look awfully good.

California, which has had to cope with a succession of injured pitchers, may have solved its bullpen problems by getting Greg Minton from the Giants. But taking the long view, the Angels don't appear strong enough to play .600 ball the rest of the way, which is probably what it would take for them to win this division.

While the Texas Rangers can still hit, they haven't come close to solving their pitching problems.

Last and least in this division are the Chicago White Sox, who could easily be candidates for a TV takeoff called ``Life Styles of the Poor and Unknown.''

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