One of the weird things about Lou Piniella's troubles is that, before George Steinbrenner announced otherwise, almost everyone in baseball thought Piniella was doing a terrific job.

Not only was he holding a shaky pitching staff together, but the Yankees were surviving without all-stars Willie Randolph and Rickey Henderson, no small feat. Yet Steinbrenner has fired 12 managers in 10 years and, despite the respect Piniella has gotten inside and outside the Yankees clubhouse and the heat he has deflected from his players, he appears to have no chance of finishing the year.

"The manager of the year in the American League is Lou Piniella," Detroit's Sparky Anderson said. "I love the way Lou handles the whole situation. I also think he runs the game good." . . .

Steinbrenner ran in Clyde King, Billy Martin and Joe Altobelli -- his three managers-in-waiting -- to watch the end of a 2-8 road trip, and what they saw wasn't pretty.

Blue Jays, Tigers on the Rise

It looks as if the Yankees, with or without Piniella, are the third-best team in their division. The starting pitching has finally come around in Toronto, with Dave Stieb and Jimmy Key both 5-0 since the all-star break. And George Bell continues his run for the AL MVP trophy. He entered the weekend with a 16-game hitting streak and had hit .435 (27 for 62) with five homers and 19 RBI during it . . .

The Detroit Tigers also look almost invincible, especially with the addition of Doyle Alexander and the revival of reliever Willie Hernandez. Hernandez pitched on four consecutive days last week, facing 20 batters and allowing only one to reach base, that on an intentional walk. Alexander, 15-3 in September the last three years, will take Dan Petry's place in the rotation.

Petry apparently never recovered from last year's elbow injury and will be a spot starter and reliever. The Atlanta Braves scored 18 runs in Alexander's last 10 starts, but he joins a team on a pace to score 909 runs. Since their 11-19 start, the Tigers are 55-28 (through Friday), and Anderson said, "We've got the best record in baseball the last three months. Maybe we are the best team."

Then, taking a shot at the Yankees' turmoil, he said: "I think we just have the Blue Jays to watch." If that's true, the last two weeks will be fun because the Tigers and Blue Jays play seven times in the last 12 days . . .

The San Francisco Giants moved into first place (briefly) in the National League West last week, and they can thank the hitting of Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark. Mitchell, acquired from the San Diego Padres five weeks ago, is playing third every day despite a wrist injury that may require surgery this winter.

Clark, in his second year, is achieving the stardom predicted for him. He had eight homers in one 11-game stretch and RBI in nine straight games. The RBI tied a team record held by three ex-Giants named Mays, McCovey and Cepeda. His 26 homers are the most for a Giants first baseman since McCovey hit 28 in 1977 . . .

What do Atlanta's Bruce Benedict, Rick Mahler, David Palmer and Zane Smith have in common? Answer: Each has five RBI, but Benedict is the only one of them who isn't a pitcher . . . What has happened to the proud Dodgers farm system? This week, they signed veteran reliever Ron Davis to an Albuquerque contract, and earlier this year, they acquired Phil Garner, Tito Landrum, Mickey Hatcher, Danny Heep and Julio Cruz, all let go by other teams . . . Since June 4, the San Diego Padres are 35-26 and the only NL West team above .500. They might also be the youngest team in the division and, by next spring, should be more than respectable . . . The Chicago White Sox recently put all their players on waivers, and only Richard Dotson was claimed. That's probably why he hasn't been traded . . .

New San Diego baseball boss Chub Feeney was on a radio show Monday night when he received a call from "Jubilant Joan." It turned out to be team owner Joan Kroc, who praised his running of the team and offered him a contract extension over the air . . . That's more bad news for Jack McKeon, who still carries the title of general manager . . .

As play began Friday, Kansas City's Bo Jackson had been on the bench for five straight games, after going one for 12 with seven strikeouts in his previous four. He has struck out 142 times in 348 at-bats and walked only 28 times. He has yet to draw an intentional walk, an indication that American League pitchers don't exactly fear him. Teammate Charlie Leibrandt is 4-1 with a 1.41 ERA in his last five starts. He has four complete games, and in his other one went 8 2/3 innings. The Royals have turned their closing work over to Jerry Don Gleaton and others. Dan Quisenberry is now a middle and mop-up man . . .

The St. Louis Cardinals may yet hold on to win the NL East, but they're an increasingly troubled team. Greg Matthews has blown 5-0 and 5-1 leads in his last two starts; Curt Ford may be out for the season with a broken hand; and Jack Clark has one homer and three RBI since July 22. What's worse, the New York Mets hope to get Bobby Ojeda back in about three weeks. The Mets are 18-10 since the all-star break, the Cardinals 13-15. But after this weekend, the Cardinals will play 26 of their last 39 games at home while the Mets play 22 of their last 38 on the road . . .

Who'll win the AL West? Right now, bet on the Twins. They will play 25 of their last 46 games in the Metrodome, where they've gone 40-18. They've won 27 of their last 34 there, and lost back-to-back home games this week for the first time since May 13-14. The Angels would appear to have a chance, especially if John Candelaria and Kirk McCaskill can come back from their problems. But Mike Witt is pitching with a sore right elbow, and the Angels have the second-worst team batting average in the majors.

They've agreed on a trade for Boston DH Don Baylor, and will take him if they're convinced Brian Downing can play left field. Baylor would platoon with Bill Buckner, sort of. Gene Mauch never has straight-up platoons . . .

The A's are promoting Dave Stewart for the Cy Young Award. It was early last season he asked the Baltimore Orioles for a tryout and was turned away. He has almost single-handedly kept the A's in contention.

Quote of the Week

"There has been a lot of talks in which Dave Henderson's name has come up. Unfortunately, I'm the only one who has ever brought it up." -- Red Sox General Manager Lou Gorman on Henderson's trade demand.