It was supposed to be at least a three-team race this year in the National League West among San Francisco, Houston, and Cincinnati - maybe a four-team skirmish if a couple of winter trades Los Angeles made turned out well. They did. The Dodgers have become contenders by adding batsmith Kirk Gibson, relief pitchers Jesse Orosco and Jay Howell, and slick-fielding shortstop Alfredo Griffin, though the latter is currently sidelined with an injury. In fact, L.A. has now spent more than 55 consecutive days in first place.
Meanwhile, the team that failed to live up to its reputation in the early going was San Francisco. But the defending division champions have climbed back into the race with a couple of recent spurts that suggest their ignition problems may be over. Although San Francisco's hitting and home run totals are down significantly from last year, the club still has a lot of good pitching.
The biggest news the Giants have made this season came on June 8 when they traded outfielder Jeffrey Leonard to the Milwaukee Brewers for journeyman infielder Ernie Riles, who had a career total of 18 home runs going into this season.
This is the same Mr. Leonard who was the 1987 National League Championship Series MVP winner, possesses a power bat, and has twice approached 90 runs batted in. Giants general manager Al Rosen explained the deal in terms baseball people have heard many times.
``The club wanted to make room in its outfield so that Mike Aldrete [who had hit well as a part-timer] could play every day,'' Rosen said.
But it may be that the Giants simply wanted to rid themselves of the controversial Leonard, who has not done well so far this year. He will become a free agent at the end of the season and had indicated he would not sign again with San Francisco.
By trading Leonard now, the Giants were able to get at least something of value for him, while ridding themselves of his $900,000 salary. There is also reason to believe that Jeffrey may have lost some of his power since injuring his wrist two years ago. He hit only three home runs in the second half of last season and had only two when San Francisco sent him to Milwaukee.
While most contenders wouldn't risk losing a proven player who might get hot during the second half of the season, the Giants are a bit more daring. A few years ago, for example, they similarly unloaded slugger Jack Clark. And in another recent winter traded away their entire pitching rotation.
One asset San Francisco has is probably the best manager in its division in Roger Craig. He has always gotten a lot of mileage from his players, and has been especially effective in teaching many of his pitchers the split-fingered fastball. This pitch, which used to be called a forkball, drops right before reaching the plate.
Asked if the Giants can still make it two in a row in the NL West, Craig replied: ``What'ya think, that I'm going to tell the world we can't do it? I wouldn't want my players reading that in the papers. Actually I do think we'll win again. Even though we lost to the Cardinals in last year's playoffs, the lessons we took home from that experience always do wonders for a young team.'' Why Red Sox have unraveled
What's the matter with the Boston Red Sox, believed to be one of the top teams in the American League East coming out of spring training? Why aren't they battling for first place instead of struggling to get over .500? Why does Boston have so much trouble winning on the road?
``We are basically a young team that hasn't matured yet'' one Red Sox player, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. ``We still make what I call a lot of rookie mistakes. We need at least another year to get ready, even though nobody in our front office is probably going to admit this.
``I think management felt that if we brought in a top relief pitcher like Lee Smith he'd save as many games for us as Jeff Reardon  did last year for Minnesota,'' this player continued. ``I can't fault management there, because Lee Smith is capable of performances like that. He has a fastball that can blow hitters away.
``But what has happened is that we haven't taken many one- or two-run leads into the late innings, situations where you can turn a pitcher like Smith loose and he'll protect that lead for you. Instead we always seem to be several runs behind.'' Elsewhere in the majors
No modern National League manager has won as many games in his first four years on the job as Davey Johnson of the New York Mets. Since 1984 Johnson's Mets on the season have won 90, 98, 108, and 92 games - and they appear headed toward the high numbers again. Speculation that had Johnson moving into the front office after the end of the season has been replaced by news leaks that he will manage again in 1989.
From manager Whitey Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals: ``Baseball has been great to me ever since I stopped trying to play it for a living!''