2002-09-07 / Sports

Baseball Pennant Race Fever Strikes

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

Baseball Columnist

For once, baseball has finally gotten it right. This month, the only strikes we’ll see are the ones thrown by pitchers.

Give MLB’s players and owners credit, because by agreeing to the new collective bargaining agreement and narrowly escaping their ninth work stoppage since 1972, baseball has also preserved the sanctity of the complete 162-game schedule and the playoffs to follow. That’s a great thing, because it would have been criminal to ruin some of the pennant races that are shaping up down the home stretch this month.

Let’s take a look at which teams are vying for their October existence, and what cities are virtually guaranteed to see some postseason baseball:

American League East

Yankees: The fact that George Steinbrenner figures to lose the most cash of any owner under baseball’s new luxury tax and revenue sharing agreements are of little consequence right now, as the Yankees are steaming back to their rightful spot in the postseason atop the AL East.

With a light September schedule on deck that includes seven games each against the Devil Rays and Tigers, it’s not a question of whether the Bronx Bombers will represent the Big Apple in the fall, it’s just a matter of how they’ll fare. The Yankees have hit a little bit of a late summer swoon, splitting recent series with Texas and Toronto, but the Pinstripers have also proven they can beat the Red Sox when it counts.

There’s a small bit of concern that the Yankees might be forced to go to battle without the services of closer Mariano Rivera, who hasn’t pitched since August 15 with a right shoulder strain. But anyone not named Jerome from Manhattan (of WFAN call-in fame) can see that the Yankees boast a lineup packed with potential All-Stars from top to bottom and have an experienced staff that knows what to do when the stakes are high. George wouldn’t have anything less.

Red Sox: Just when you think things might turn around for the Red Sox, you have to remember why they haven’t won a championship since 1918. Pedro Martinez’s nagging notwithstanding, Boston is well on their way to 90-plus wins this season, but unfortunately the situation looks bleak for an October at Fenway Park. Having the Yankees in their division and two teams to leapfrog in the wild card race appears to be too much for the Sox.

American League Central

Twins: Contract this, Bud. Minnesota responded to Commissioner Bud Selig’s call for the folding of their franchise this past winter by stringing together a season that is on track to be their best since 1991, when they defeated the Braves in the World Series.

Emerging stars Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones have led the offensive charge for the Twins, while a lights-out bullpen of little-known names like J.C. Romero, Tony Fiore, Eddie Guardado and the resurgent LaTroy Hawkins have more than made up for a lackluster starting rotation.

American League West

Athletics: The Amazin’ A’s are everything that’s right with baseball, continuing on with an unstoppable hot streak. Boasting a payroll that began the season totaling less than a third of the Yankees’ $126 million roster, the A’s have captured the imagination of America with their recent winning string – unbroken at 19 games as the Wave went to press.

Shortstop Miguel Tejada and third baseman Eric Chavez are both solid MVP candidates and Oakland has three stud pitchers in their rotation, showcasing Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Even forgotten players like one-time Met Cory Lidle are making their contributions for Oakland.

The best part about the A’s? With clubhouse rapport rivaling that of a college frat house, these guys are genuinely having fun – a quality that seems to be getting rarer these days.

Angels and Mariners: Out to spoil Oakland’s party are Anaheim and Seattle, who play a combined eight games against the A’s over an eleven-game stretch this month. Led by the hitting prowess of Garrett Anderson, Troy Glaus and the scrappy play of Adam Kennedy, the Angels have surprised a lot of pundits by hanging tough in the West.

The emergence of lefthander Jarrod Washburn as a reliable starting pitcher and continued excellence by closer Troy Percival make the Angels a dangerous force in a playoff series, and a good candidate for the AL wild card should they not catch Oakland for the division.

The Mariners are still in the race but have slipped, with John Olerud, Ruben Sierra and Mark McLemore all having their share of trouble with injuries. Even hitting sensation Ichiro Suzuki fell a notch, watching his average drop from .363 on July 25 to .333 on Sept. 3.

Plusses for Seattle include righty Joel Piniero, who leads all Mariners starters in ERA, and infielder Desi Relaford, who had 11 hits in 23 at-bats (.478) over a six-game stretch last week. Relaford proved his talent last season with the Mets and could see more playing time down the stretch, especially with third baseman Jeff Cirillo struggling.

National League East

Braves: After opening up to a sluggish 12-15 start in April, Bobby Cox’s Braves have played at nearly a .700 clip, opening up a commanding 18 game lead on the second-place Phillies through Tuesday’s action.

But while rotation heads Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood are pitching to their usual standards, and dominant closer John Smoltz (49 saves) appears poised to break Bobby Thigpen’s record of 57 saves in a single season, there is pause for concern with Atlanta’s lineup.

Star outfielder Gary Sheffield has been bothered by a sprained left thumb of late, while third baseman Vinny Castilla, outfielder Andruw Jones and catcher Javy Lopez are both failing to carry their share of the load.

But Atlanta will have plenty of time to tune up. The Braves won’t face a truly decent opponent the rest of the season, matching up seven times with Florida, six times with Philadelphia and five times with the Mets.

National League Central

Cardinals: Shaken by the untimely death of clubhouse leader Darryl Kile, it’s hard not to root for the emotionally ravaged Cards as they pace their division. Their lineup was only improved with the pickup of third baseman Scott Rolen from the Phillies, providing some much-needed protection for Albert Pujols. Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Pujols are all batting above .300, a testament to the tough outs stacked up in St. Louis’ order.

St. Louis holds a tenuous lead in the Central, but their downfall could be pitching. Outside of righthander Matt Morris, the Cardinals don’t really have a go-to guy in their rotation, and closer Jason Isringhausen was forced to have a cortisone shot and a MRI this week.

Astros: Just four games back in the division at the beginning of action Wednesday, Houston is primed for their opportunity to overtake the lead from the Cardinals in September. The Astros and Cardinals are scheduled to meet seven times this month, and Houston gets the added advantage of taking on the NL-worst Brewers at the same time that St. Louis is forced to deal with the Diamondbacks.

Closing in on a 40-homer season, Lance Berkman is a monster in the heart of Houston’s lineup and a perfect complement to Jeff Bagwell’s steady power. Roy Oswalt is in position to become a 20-game winner this season and the relief tandem of flamethrowers Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner have been equally impressive.

National League West

Diamondbacks: By now, everybody is familiar with Arizona’s formula for success. No team has a more dynamic 1-2 combination of starting pitchers than the Diamondbacks’ tandem of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who have already combined for 40 victories this season against just five losses apiece.

It’s what happens on the other three days that could put an end to Arizona’s hopes to repeat as World Champions. Pitchers Miguel Batista, Rick Helling and Brian Anderson all have records under .500, but a strong bullpen partially atones for their shortcomings.

Offensively, Junior Spivey has raised eyebrows as an offensive catalyst, leading the club in batting average, runs scored, hits and doubles. The pop is provided again by outfielders Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley, with Gonzalez holding a legitimate shot at a .300 year with 30 homers and over 100 RBI.

Dodgers: The wild card-leading Dodgers could market their product with a concise slogan – the Shawn Green and Eric Gagne Show.

Green’s bat has again lit up Los Angeles’ lineup, hitting .280 with 39 homers and 104 RBI through Tuesday, while Gagne has made a remarkable transition to the closer role. In 67 games, the bespectacled Gagne has nailed down 47 saves and allowed just six home runs, posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 8:1.

Los Angeles boasts a quartet of solid starting pitchers in their rotation, with the talented Odalis Perez leading a pack of double-digit winners that also includes Hideo Nomo, Omar Daal and rookie Kaz Ishii.

Giants: September is a big month for the playoff hopes of the Giants, who will be headed for a winter of heartache if they aren’t up to a series of strong tests. San Francisco is playing well, having won ten of twelve to complete the month of August, but will be challenged by seven games this month against the Dodgers, four against the Diamondbacks and three against the Astros.

Of course, the big bats of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent have led the Giants, but surprises like Benito Santiago and David Bell have done their fair share to put runs up on the board at Pac Bell Park. On the mound, San Francisco’s hopes rely on the arms of a trio of average-to-good starters: Kirk Rueter, Jason Schmidt and Russ Ortiz.

Manager Dusty Baker has shown unwavering confidence in closer Robb Nen, even as the righthander blew four of five save opportunities in a recent slump. While Baker’s hardiness has paid dividends of late, the Giants can ill afford another repeat.

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