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BISONS REACH MIDPOINT AS THE TEAM TO BEAT

LISTEN FOLKS, IT'S going to be another year or more before this expansion business is finally settled. So do yourselves a favor and put it out of your minds for awhile. Chill out and enjoy the summer. For a few months, at least, stop anguishing about your chances of getting a team and enjoy the one you already have.

The Bisons reached the exact midpoint of their season Wednesday, and they arrived in pretty encouraging shape. Sure, a sweep would have been nice. Still, despite a 3-0 loss to Nashville in Wednesday's series finale, they accomplished what they set out to do. They won two of three and dropped the Sounds, their nearest divisional rival, 2 1/2 games off the pace.

They have been in the lead for two months now. Two months to the day, in fact. And the longer they stay there, the more apparent it is these guys like playing from in front. The lead never has been more than 4 1/2 games, but one way or another, the Bisons always have managed to maintain it.

Seven times since May 1, the Bisons have entered a game with their lead down to one game, or a half-game. Every time, they've gone out and won.

That says a lot about a team. Maybe it's early, and maybe there's a whole summer of baseball left to be played, but the Bisons have demonstrated one of the most essential qualities of a championship team -- they play their best when threatened from behind. They've established themselves as the team to beat in the East.

"I don't know if we're the team to beat," said Dann Bilardello, the veteran catcher. "But look at it this way, when you're on top, other teams look at you that way. The fact we've been able to hang on is a good measure of the club we have."

They've been a resourceful club, one that has continued to win despite injuries to key players and the personnel shuffling that is typical of minor league ball. Such young players as Moises Alou and Ed Yacopino have come in and produced, and provided what Bilardello described as a "rejuvenating" presence. And all along, the Bisons have been gathering in confidence.

"You can tell," Bilardello said. "Let me tell you, I've been around the game for a long time, and I've been in situations where you went out and didn't expect to succeed. But with this team, there's no time we go on the field where we don't expect to win."

It helps, of course, when you possess the top pitching staff in the league. Entering Wednesday's game, the Bisons' team earned run average (3.11) was the lowest in the Association by a wide margin. The pitchers were allowing a remarkable 2.6 walks a game, the fewest by far in the league.

"It's tough to describe this team," said manager Terry Collins. "We can play so well consistently, and that's due to the fact we take the field and know our pitchers will keep us in the game."

Maybe that's why there were no long faces in the dressing room after Wednesday's setback. They had received another exemplary start from Dorn Taylor, who turns into Walter Johnson whenever he walks onto the Pilot Field mound. But Chris Hammond, Nashville's confounding left-hander, simply was better. Those things happen in baseball. The good teams simply dismiss them and move on.

The Bisons have been a first-place team for two months, and it will take more than one loss to unsettle them now. They are the team to beat for now, and it should make for an interesting summer in Buffalo. If there's a pennant race in store, their response in big games suggests they're up for it.

"When it gets close and the guys feel threatened, they just seem to play well," said Steve Henderson, the Bisons' hitting coach.

"Hey," Henderson said, "maybe they like being in first."

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