We are now heading toward the stretch run of this 1998 baseball campaign, and you might think it should be a pretty boring final month of the regular season. After all, the only close Division race is in the AL West, with all the others long since decided. But the invention of the Wild Card, blasphemy for many of us, has created a semblance of pennant races in both leagues, enough to make a hefty percentage of the remaining games meaningful for many fans. And Yankee fans, of course, can root for their team even though they're 150 games ahead in the loss column, as they close in all the all-time record for wins. Then there's that little matter of the Maris chase, which will have the ancillary effect of keeping even casual fans tuned into baseball in general more than usual this September.
All of which should lead to heightened interest in what comes after, the playoffs and the World Series, which could also be exceedingly entertaining. Herewith, therefore, forthwith, and hereafter, my personal prognostications for the Classic Fall we are about to enjoy:
The Races. Just for the fun of it, I want to focus on the prospects for post-season glory, team as well as individual, here with one month to go. First, the American League:
AL Wild Card. The Red Sox have had a truly glorious season, one that still seems destined to become even more memorable before it's over. It began with the home opener, when Vaughn's 9th inning grand slam capped a 7-run comeback against the Mariners, and started a string of come-from-behind victories that ignited Fenway fans all Spring and Summer. This reminds me of 1986, which began with Dwight Evans hitting a home run on the very first pitch of the season, and somehow seemed destined to be a great year from that moment forward. The Red Sox have just the right combination of top-tier talent and quality role-players to make for a loveable team. And even the controversy over Vaughn's contract has added a dramatic element to the team's fortunes.
Still, where will it lead? Red Sox lore would be equally consistent with a dramatic entry to the post-season, including an ultimate showdown with the Invincible Yankees, as with a last minute drop out of the race after coming this far. Naturally, we'd prefer the former, and I'm happy to predict it, officially, here. The Orioles had their run after the All Star break, making theirs a respectable season. But after Mussina and Erickson, they don't have the pitching to take them down the stretch, and their respected veterans will simply not hold up in a tight pennant race. But I do expect them to make it interesting. As for the West, it's frankly amazing that the Angels are still in the race, for both the division and the wild card, with the players they've lost and the limitations of their roster (catcher? starting pitching? 2nd base?). The Rangers are clearly the better team, and their recent additions should soon gel, leading them to a healthy division win, while the Angels don't really challenge for the wild card, either.
AL Playoffs. I don't know if I understand the playoff matchup system, but I'll pretend, and predict that the Red Sox will face Cleveland and the Rangers will face the Yankees.
Red Sox--Indians: Well, the last time we tried this, it didn't work out so well, especially for Vaughn. But this is a different era altogether. Bart Colon is a great kid, but he'll have to face Martinez in Games 1 and 4 (unless they give it to Nagy, ouch). I assume that Thome will be back and healthy, and the Indians can probably score against Wakefield and/or Saberhagen, but the Sox lineup can hold its own against Cleveland's, especially with Alomar in a season-long slump. Boston's clutch kids will have to produce a few more times: O'Leary, Bragg, Buford, Benjamin, etc. It sure would be nice to have one more bat (other than Merced) before September 1. Let's call this a close 3-2 Boston win.
Yankees--Rangers: The Yankees absurd win-loss record implies that they'll pound their way through the playoffs to the championship. Maybe. But this could be an interesting matchup. Presumably the Yankees' rotation will be Cone, Wells, Pettite, and maybe Irabu, although Hernandez is the better pitcher. The Rangers will counter with Sele, Helling, Burkett, Loaiza. Wow. Talk about a mismatch. But Texas has been winning on its hitting, not its pitching, and they have a great defense to boot (no pun intended). Any of the Yanks' starters could fall victim to Rodriguez, Gonzalez, et al., on any given day. And if it gets to the 9th, Wetteland remains the best in the league, although his protege Rivera ain't sliced ham. I'd look for a couple of high scoring games, and a couple of Yankee routs, with New York taking the series, 3-1.
Red Sox--Yankees: Now won't this be the best baseball week in Boston in more than a decade? Let me be the first to present the matchups that will be all over the papers, around October 10:
Red Sox Yankees Advantage Vaughn T. Martinez Sox Garciaparra Jeter Even O'Leary O'Neill Yanks Lewis B. Williams Yanks Benjamin Knoblauch Yanks Valentin Brosius Even Stanley/Jefferson Strawberry/Davis Even Buford/Bragg Raines/Curtis Yanks Hatteburg/Varitek Girardi/Posada Yanks P. Martinez Cone Sox Wakefield Wells Yanks Saberhagen Pettitte Yanks Schourek Hernandez Yanks Lowe/Eckersley etc. Mendoza/Nelson etc. Yanks Gordon Rivera Even
Okay, so it is heavily one-sided. Maybe one of their guys will get injured. No, seriously, with Pedro taking the lead, anything's possible. If the Red Sox pull out Game 1 and can somehow win just one of the next 3, you've got a 2-2 series with Pedro pitching again. Now doesn't that look tasty? Prediction: Sorry, I will not make a prediction about this one, I just want it to take place.
NL Wildcard. As you know, I pay a lot less attention over here, but as I understand it, the Cubs and Mets are neck-and-neck, reliving 1969's dramatics (sort of), and the Giants are in the hunt. Each team has its share of marque hitters, with Sosa leading the Cubs, Olerud and Piazza for the Mets, and Bonds for S.F. But count on pitching to be the deciding factor. The Cubs have Kerry Wood, and Traschel and Tapani are having decent years, but that's not a staff to ride to the post-season. The Giants are even worse off, relying on guys like Orel Hershiser and (injured) Shawn Estes and Danny Darwin; you can kiss them goodbye in September. The Mets, on the other hand, have legitimate starters in Al Leiter (12-4, 2.35) and Rick Reed (14-7, 2.87), although on the other end they have Nomo and Blair, who are 9-25 between them.
NL Playoffs. It doesn't really matter, of course, because none of the above is going to go anywhere in the playoffs. Let's pretend that the Mets will play the Astros, and the Padres will face the Braves.
Mets--Astros: The acquisition of Randy Johnson is one of the best stretch-run deals ever made, and puts the 'stros in a legitimate position to go all the way. Combined with Shane Reynolds and either Hampton or Lima, they could sweep the Mets in the first round. With Bagwell, Alou, Biggio, Bell, and Berry, the Astros have an extremely solid lineup, as well. I think the Mets are over their head here, and I'll predict a 3-0 sweep.
Braves--Padres: Who are the San Diego Padres, anyway? With Tony Gwynn on the DL, this is about the most anonymous very good team in baseball. Well, I suppose Greg Vaughn has made himself known this year, and Wally Joyner is still around, as well as Ken Caminiti. But they've also got guys named Ed Giovanola and Chris Gomez and Carlos Hernandez in the lineup, who don't seem like they belong on a championship-caliber team. For pitching, there are big names like Andy Ashby (16-6) and Kevin Brown (15-4), plus the potent Trevor Hoffman at closer (and now Randy Myers). But let's face it, this is not a team to take on the mighty Braves, even if they have comparable won-lost records this season. Consider this: in a short series, Kevin Millwood (14-7) probably won't even get to start. Granted, the Braves have bullpen questions, but maybe they'll just move Millwood there for the playoffs, and that closes that hole. And let's not forget the Braves' lineup: the Jones brothers, Gallaraga, Lopez, Klesko, et al. Braves, 3-1.
Braves--Astros: Wouldn't this be one of the all-time great playoff matchups? Can you imagine Johnson-Maddux for at least 2, maybe 3 games? Plus Reynolds-Glavine for 2 more. The Braves' staff is much deeper, with Smoltz and Neagle, and Millwood possibly the odd man out again. But the Astros arguably have the better lineup, top to bottom, and certainly the better bullpen. This series is destined to go 7 games, but I'm not prepared to make a prediction. It will just be fun to watch. And then, of course, a showdown between either team and the Yankees would be a pretty good World Series . . . and if the Red Sox make it . . .
The Awards: Another reason to pay attention during the next few weeks is to follow the competition for most individual post-season awards and other accomplishments. This is a fun season for tracking the award candidates, for in most categories there are several legitimate choices, and it's really a tough call. The final month will provide a lot of individual dramatics (the McGwire/Sosa chase leading the way, but also Rickey's stolen bases (see my June column), A-Rod's 40-40, the Schilling-Johnson strikeout challenge; the A.L. ERA crown; numerous pursuits of 20 wins, and so on). Here are the principal players contending for 1998 glory:
AL MVP: This one of the toughest races. The triple crown categories are led by wide margins by 3 different players: Williams, Griffey, and Gonzalez. You can make a case for any of them, although Griffey is probably least likely, because Seattle's done so poorly.
Besides, if you were going to pick a Mariner, it might be Alex Rodriguez, who (at 36-36) is on target to have only the third 40HR-40SB season in history, and could well surpass both Barry Bonds's and Jose Canseco's 42-40 mark.
Meanwhile, Ivan Rodriguez also has to be a strong candidate, as he's been among the top hitters all year, plays for a winner, and is perhaps the most valuable defensive player in the game, at any position. (Do you know that he's picked off 26 runners at 1st base in the past 3 seasons? That's unbelievable.)
Need another strong candidate? How about a guy who's 3rd in batting, 3rd in hits, 4th in slugging, 6th in HR, and a team leader on the team with the 2nd best record in the league? Sure, why shouldn't Mo Vaughn get his MVP votes? And with a strong September, it's not impossible that he could win a split decision.
Rafael Palmeiro also deserves some votes, and Albert Belle will be in the top 5 or 6, too. Derek Jeter, Jim Thome, and Tim Salmon are also rans.
AL Cy Young: A close race here, too. Pedro Martinez is the local favorite, and his 15-4, 2.91 is arguably the best overall performance in the league to date. But the Yankee Davids, Cone (18-4, 3.40) and Wells (15-2, 3.44), are right behind him, and September could easily put either of them over the top. And how about Roger Clemens? Not a bad follow-up to last year's Cy, at 15-6, 2.90, but his team has fallen out of contention. Still, what if he ends up leading the league in ERA and strikeouts, and is second in Wins?
Chuck Finley may also get some votes, as might Bartolo Colon and a reliever or two (Wetteland, Gordon, Percival).
AL Rookie of the Year: If they excluded Cubans (who are really veterans) from consideration, Ben Grieve (.287-15-69) would have this award wrapped up. As the rules currently work, however, it's probably between refugees Rolando Arrojo and Orlando Hernandez, with the latter currently in the lead.
NL MVP: Take this to the bank: If Mark McGwire breaks Maris's record (and no one else does), he's the NL MVP. Never mind that Sammy Sosa has more RBIs and plays for a winning team. McGwire's got a 50-point higher slugging average, and 100-point higher OBP, and his RBIs are close enough. If both McGwire and Sosa fall short of Maris, then Sosa probably wins the award, but by a close margin. Obviously, the MVP is really only between those two, but plenty of 3rd-4th place votes could go to Greg Vaughn, Moises Alou, Chipper Jones, John Olerud, and Dante Bichette.
NL Cy Young: Closing in on his unprecedented 5th award is the incomparable Greg Maddux (well, if Clemens won it, that would be 5 also). It's hard to believe that he's "only" 15-6, given his tiny 1.67 ERA. If Maddux somehow fell apart in September, teammate Tom Glavine (16-4, 2.35) is right behind him, and Padres Andy Ashby (16-6, 2.50) and Kevin Brown (16-4, 2.38) could make the race interesting.
NL Rookie of the Year: Phenom Kerry Wood has the inside track on this award, with his 20-strikeout performance, and his 11-6, 3.44 for a winning team. Diamondback 1B Travis Lee (.278-20-55) and Rockie 1B Todd Helton (.298-18-68) are having good years, but aren't likely to dislodge Wood. Nor is Braves closer Kerry Ligtenberg (20 saves), although he's been a "savior" in the absence of Wohlers. In a good year for rookie 1st basemen, Expo Brad Fullmer (.283-8-56) and Marlin Derrek Lee (.249-14-60) might also get some votes.
Okay, let's have your reactions. Come on, argue it up, and get ready for one of the best Autumns of baseball we've seen in many a year.
Comments? Questions? Impassioned, hyperbolic
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