Astros second baseman Craig Biggio has been one of baseball's most respected players for so long that it's only fitting that he get a moment in the spotlight. Given the way offensive records are falling, it could be only a moment.

Biggio tied his club record for doubles this week when he clubbed his 51st. He entered the weekend just 16 short of the 68-year-old major league record of 67 set by Boston's Earl Webb. Biggio is even closer to the National League record of 64 set by the Cardinals' Joe Medwick in 1936.

Closing on a record that has stood for almost seven decades doesn't seem to faze Biggio. Never mind that the record has stood longer than Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or the single-season home run record that Mark McGwire broke last summer.

"I don't like to talk about it, but hopefully it will continue," Biggio told the Houston Chronicle. "You have to have some good fortune on your side. The guy who hit 67 doubles; that's an unbelievable record. That's like, wow! I've been fortunate this year to find a couple of extra holes. I don't know what it is, but I'm not trying to figure it out, either.

"As long as you had a positive impact on the game, records don't really mean anything to me. It's something that's nice, but it's not the most important thing in life."

One simple explanation for Biggio's 51 doubles is the way he plays. Players who get a lot of doubles usually are ones who hit the ball hard and hustle out of the batter's box. Biggio does both as consistently as anyone in baseball.

"At least 10 of his doubles are just on sheer hustle," Astros hitting coach Harry Spilman said. "That's the kind of player it takes to hit a lot of doubles. Pete Rose was the same way."

Minority View

Commissioner Bud Selig's office has compiled a list of minority candidates for teams seeking a manager or general manager. Selig is careful to say he won't order a team to hire a minority, adding: "We're talking about interviewing the candidates, and having those interviews be serious and thoughtful."

Since the start of the 1993 season, there have been 39 managerial firings. Only the White Sox hired a minority (Jerry Manuel) during that time.

The record of hiring black general managers is even worse. The Astros and Yankees are the only teams who have given the title of general manager to a black person. Both times that person was Bob Watson.

Raffy's Revenge

Rafael Palmeiro may not be finished getting his revenge on the Orioles for allowing him to escape via free agency this past winter. He could top off a return to Texas by winning the American League most valuable player award. Palmeiro is leading the Rangers to a division championship while his replacement in Baltimore, Will Clark, was placed on the disabled list for the seventh time since 1996 this week.

Clark ended his first season with the Orioles with 10 homers and 29 RBI, which has turned into a good month for Palmeiro. He began the weekend with 14 homers and 33 RBI this month.

Palmeiro has 24 home runs at The Ballpark in Arlington. In five seasons with the Rangers, Clark never hit more than 11 home runs at home in a season.

Take a Break

Every time David Cone pitches poorly, the Yankees ask him the same thing: Is your shoulder okay? With Cone pitching well, the Yankees remain baseball's best team, so the final five weeks will be about getting him in a good frame of mind for the playoffs.

One solution could be rest. Last season, he pitched his best after he stopped throwing between starts. This season when he has had five or more days of rest between starts, he has a 1.92 earned run average. On the normal four days between starts, his ERA is 4.46.

Closing the Deal

The Diamondbacks are 27-11 since acquiring closer Matt Mantei from the Marlins. Mantei has converted 13 of 15 save opportunities, and appears to be the final piece for a franchise that is headed to the playoffs in only its second year of existence.

"You never know what would have happened had we not traded for him," Diamondbacks pitcher Andy Benes said.

The Diamondbacks had blown 14 of 30 save chances before Mantei arrived. "He even made the fans calm down," outfielder Luis Gonzalez said.

Perhaps the best part of the story is that Mantei's arrival has allowed Gregg Olson to prosper as a setup man. Few people in baseball deserve something good more than Olson, whose career seemed over after an elbow injury in 1993. He spent four years bouncing between the big leagues and the minors before finally making the Diamondbacks during their first spring training.

He struggled as a closer, and Mantei's arrival has given him a chance to thrive in another capacity. With baseball's most dominant starting pitcher, Randy Johnson, and an everyday lineup that has speed and power, Arizona is an easy team to like. The Braves and Mets will be the more popular choices to win the National League title, but it would be a mistake to count out the Diamondbacks.

"Everything is clicking now," Johnson said. "We've got everything we need now."

St. Louis Blues

The Cardinals are a mess. If it's not the bullpen wasting another of Mark McGwire's home runs, it's center fielder J.D. Drew throwing to the wrong base or pitcher Kent Bottenfield failing to cover first base on a routine grounder.

"Sometimes we just give up," third baseman Fernando Tatis said. "Sometimes we just feel down. Sometimes you feel down because you see so many guys on base. Sometimes you feel down when you stay in the field maybe 20 minutes. They're trying to get everybody out. Our manager says, 'Don't feel down. Never give up.' That's hard to do, but that's the only way we can win the game."

Braves' New World

The Braves have been hit hard by injuries and inconsistency, but don't overlook them. They've won 15 of their past 18 home games, including a three-game sweep of the Reds last week. And their starting pitching rotation finally is coming around.

Left-hander Terry Mulholland has a 3.51 ERA since being acquired from the Cubs, and Tom Glavine is 8-2 in his past 15 starts. Now, the key to their postseason success may be John Smoltz, who is pitching despite a sore elbow and won for the first time in 10 starts this past week. Smoltz has gone to a three-quarter delivery on his breaking pitches to take some stress off his elbow. He has also perfected a change-up he learned from reliever Mike Remlinger.

"I've been determined to change my luck and make a break for myself," he said.

With John Rocker having developed into a steady closer, the Braves may enter the postseason feeling good about their pitching staff. The problem remains an offense that hasn't had Andres Galarraga all season and no longer can count on Brian Jordan, who has a sore hand and hit just .238 on a just-completed homestand.

Waiting for Beckett

The Marlins yesterday signed their first-round draft choice, high school pitcher Josh Beckett, the last first-rounder to sign. Beckett had enrolled at Blinn (Tex.) Junior college, and had he attended a class Monday, the Marlins wouldn't have been able to sign him until at least June. Beckett, who was 32-6 with 482 strikeouts in three seasons at Spring High School outside Houston, received a contract worth $7 million over four years.

Chewing the Fat

A's second baseman Randy Velarde carries just seven percent body fat, prompting first baseman Jason Giambi to say: "That guy's going to freeze to death. He's going to get a paper cut and bleed to death."

Velarde's fanatical conditioning regimen has been legendary around major league baseball, and is one of the reasons the 36-year-old infielder is having one of his best seasons, including a career-high 59 RBI.

Velarde recalled this week how the Yankees once held a body fat contest between Velarde, Rickey Henderson and Roberto Kelly. "I was one-tenth of a percentage point lower than Rickey," Velarde said. "Rickey was not happy. He called for a second measurement, and the result was the same."

THE WEEK AHEAD

Matchups to Watch

Atlanta at Cincinnati

Monday through Wednesday

The injury-plagued Braves continue to win, taking the majors' best record (82-49) into today's game in St. Louis. Atlanta also has compiled a 20-5 mark against the NL's other top teams (Cincinnati, New York, Houston and Arizona), including a 6-0 mark against the Reds, whom they have outscored, 30-12. The Braves have beaten the Reds in 22 of the team's past 26 meetings. As of yesterday, Cincinnati still had baseball's best road record (40-20), despite being swept in Atlanta earlier this week. But the Reds have struggled at Cinergy Field, where they are just 35-32, the worst home record of any NL contender. The Reds' Denny Neagle will look to bounce back from a disappointing outing last week when he faces Greg Maddux, who missed his last start with a bone chip in his wrist.

N.Y. Mets at Houston

Monday through Wednesday

There was a playoff atmosphere at Shea Stadium earlier this week, where New York took two of three games between the clubs. The Mets and Astros rank first and third, respectively, in the NL in fewest errors committed, and each made just one in the series. The starting pitching was also stellar, as only six of the 15 runs were allowed by starters. Both teams have MVP-caliber players in their infields. Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell entered last night's games hitting .311, with 38 home runs, 108 RBI and 114 runs scored, while New York third baseman Robin Ventura is batting .308 with 28 home runs and 103 RBI. Kenny Rogers, fresh off an 8B-inning stint in Wednesday's 4-0 win over Houston, faces Jose Lima on Tuesday in the series' best pitching matchup.

Arizona at Atlanta

Friday through Sunday

Atlanta has beaten the Diamondbacks in four of six meetings this season. But the Diamondbacks are the NL's only team that is virtually assured of a playoff spot, taking an 8A-game lead over San Francisco in the West Division into last night's game against the Mets. Arizona's already formidable starting pitching rotation got a boost with Todd Stottlemyre's return Aug. 20. The Diamondbacks have baseball's most dominating pitcher, Randy Johnson, who got his 300th strikeout of the season Thursday in his 29th start, a major league record. Johnson (14-8) has not allowed more than two runs in a start since June 20, and if not for poor run support, easily could be 19-3. Arizona also has Omar Daal and Armando Reynoso, who are a combined 22-9. Offensively, the Diamondbacks are led by third baseman Matt Williams (.308, 31 home runs, 116 RBI).

-- Matt DeMazza

BY THE NUMBERS

45 The Angels have scored two runs or fewer 45 times. They're 4-41 in those games.

9-19 The Rockies are 9-19 in games started by right-hander Darryl Kile.

33-3 The Padres lost back-to-back games to the Phillies by the combined score of 33-3.

50 The Cubs lost for the 50th time in 70 games on Wednesday.

17-27 The Cardinals are 17-27 in games in which Mark McGwire homers.

10 Atlanta's John Smoltz has won 10 straight decisions against the Reds, who have a 2-13 record at Turner Field.

22-39 The Rangers are 22-39 against the Yankees since the start of the 1995 season.

8/2 Nomar Garciaparra hasn't homered since Aug. 2.

100 RBI, A DECADE, THEN ANOTHER 100

With 81 RBI, the recently traded Harold Baines is on course for his first 100-RBI season since 1985 when he had 113. The only other players who've gone at least a decade between 100-RBI seasons are Ken Keltner who had 113 RBI in 1938 and 119 in 1948; and Willie Horton who had 100 RBI in 1966 and 106 in 1979. Baines was traded from the Orioles to Cleveland on Friday.