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Split-season plan widens pennant race

Having decided on a split season as the best way to heighten fan interest in both the American and National League pennant races, baseball owners are now waiting to see just how well their plan will work after a 50-day strike.

Basically the owners' move makes sense, even though some people think it has turned baseball into a shell game. But if the pennant races had been allowed to continue from where they left off on June 12, there would be little incentive for baseball's have-not clubs to play extra hard.

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Already too far behind the good teams to be taken seriously, they would have had only about 50 games in which to play catch- up. Now a hot streak at the start of what many people are calling baseball's "second season" could at least provide the illusion that they might hold on and finish first.

The club that may benefit most from the split season is Kansas City, last year's American League champion, which lost to Philadelphia in the World Series.

When the strike broke, the Royals were 10 games under .500, couldn't seem to get their act together offensively or defensively when it counted, and were also having trouble relating to manager Jim Frey.

But with the chance for a brand new start, George Brett, Willie Wilson, Amos otis & Company are expected to come back strong in the weeks immediately ahead. And if they don't, Frey will probably be managing elsewhere next season.

Although Oakland won the AL West for the first half, the A's are not really that well thought of by their opponents.

Many scouts, in fact, feel that Oakland's early-season success was based on playing over its head, rather than on that much actual talent. However, if you like deep pitching and are familiar with Billy Martin's track record in his first two years as a manager with a new team, which is the case here, the A's still look formidable.

Other second-half contenders could be California, Texas, and Chicago. The Angels had begun to play extremely well under new manager Gene Mauch; the Rangers were winning the close ones; and the White Sox had suddenly found hitting to go with their pitching.

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The New York Yankees are the AL East's first-half champions, setting up potential playoff series with their Baltimore or Milwaukee that would do wonders for baseball's TV ratings.

Although Boston or Detroit could sneak into the playoffs instead if their pitching were to suddenly improve, neither of these teams seems to have quite the depth of the Orioles or Brewers.

In the National League West, the first- half champion Los Angeles Dodgers are always a threat because of their pitching, made even better by the early heroics of rookie left-hander Fernando Valenzuela. The Dodgers also have three very productive RBI men in Steve Garvey, Dusty Baker, and Pedro Guerrero. If these three were to be rejoined on a regular basis by Reggie Smith, who was reduced to a pinch- hitting role during the first half by an arm injury, LA would be very tough to beat in the second half as well.

A closer look should probably be taken, too, at Cincinnati, which had the same number of losses as LA and only one fewer victory in the first half. The Reds have improved their pitching since last year; have as good a double-play combination as there is in the league in Dave Concepcion and Ron Oester; plus a rested Johnny Bench to lead them down the stretch.

The team most likely to go on a rampage, though, is Houston, which may have started poorly this year but which began playing like one of the best teams in baseball just before the strike. Although the Atlanta Braves probably deserve some token pennant consideration because of their youth and hitting, they are still probably a year or two away from a division title.

In the NL East, it looks like a four-team race among first half winner Philadelphia, St. Louis, Montreal, and Pittsburgh.

Given a 50-game rest in which to recharge batteries that never needed any help in the first place, Pete Rose of the Phillies is apt to set some kind of record for most hits during the tail end of a season. Manager Dallas Green will also have one of the best pitchers in baseball going for him down the stretch in 1980 Cy Young award winner Steve Carlton.

The Cardinals, with so much more balance than they had a year ago, also look good enough to win. And there is certainly enough talent in Montreal to justify a first place finish for the Expos. Although less is thought of Pittsburgh's chances, grizzled Pirate veterans like Willie Stargell have been known to work miracles in the past when they didn't have too far to go -- and 50 games is not a long time.

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