The American League East race has loosened up considerably the past few days, but still it remains the closest and most volatile division in baseball.
The top four teams -- once separated by a half-game -- have fallen into line as the 1993 season turns for home. After last night's 7-4 win over Detroit, Toronto holds a one-game lead over New York, 1 1/2 over Boston and four over the Orioles. It wouldn't take a stretch of the imagination to put any of them into the playoffs, but things could get complicated the next few weeks.
Two trading deadlines still lie ahead, leaving room to wonder how much the makeup of each team might be subject to change. The cutoff for making a deal without waivers passes tomorrow night, so something could happen at any minute.
Speculation is rampant in Toronto and New York. It is more reserved in Boston and Baltimore, but the thought processes are the same in each contending city. No one in this age of parity is without need of help. There are no superteams in the American League.
Orioles general manager Roland Hemond canceled his trip to Toronto this week to stay by the phone, hoping to find the right player for the right price for the most promising stretch run in five years. The Orioles need a third baseman, or a pitcher, or a power-hitting first baseman, depending on whom you talk to. The odds are stacked heavily against a deal for an impact player, but several AL East teams are trying.
The Blue Jays reportedly are talking to the Oakland Athletics about Rickey Henderson and the Montreal Expos about Dennis Martinez. No one doubts GM Pat Gillick's ability to pull off something big after the series of late-season trades that have kept his team at the top of the division much of the past five years, but you have to wonder how long the Toronto farm system can survive the annual drain.
The Yankees are known to be involved in trade talks with the Cincinnati Reds involving starting pitcher Tim Belcher, but they'll have a lot of competition. They also are expected to make a play for relief help.
The Red Sox, who will open a three-game series at Camden Yards tonight, apparently will take their chances with what they've got. The club is the latest AL East team to go on a tremendous run, going 27-7 since June 21 to climb back within 1 1/2 games of first place.
"They have gotten a lot of breaks and they are hitting the ball well," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said, "plus they are getting outstanding pitching."
Oates, who counts Detroit among the contenders, separates the top five AL East clubs into two categories -- those that have to depend most heavily on pitching and those who can get by on their offensive strength. The Orioles and Red Sox are in the first group.
"If you break it down, I think with Toronto, hitting will win it for them," he said. "Hitting will win it for the Yankees and Detroit, too. Boston has to pitch. Our team. . . we have to do a combination of things. We have to play fundamentally sound baseball."
The Orioles have averaged 6.2 runs the past 19 games, but theypitched their way back into contention in June and pitching will determine whether they remain there down the stretch.
"In New York, Toronto and Detroit, their hitting is superior to their pitching," Oates said, "so they are going to have to score more runs to win than Boston or us. Conversely, we're going to have give up fewer runs than them."
He'll get no argument from the Yankees, who have batted .339 since the All-Star break to climb to within one game of the Blue Jays. The off-season acquisitions of left-handers Jimmy Key and Jim Abbott have solidified the pitching staff, but the club is believed to be trolling for another front-line starter and a solid reliever.
If general manager Gene Michael succeeds in acquiring someone the caliber of Belcher, the Yankees could become the team to beat in the AL East. They have been the most consistent -- the only contender that hasn't had to stage a major run to get to the top of the standings.
The division race has been surprisingly unstable. The Orioles were nine games under .500 (21-30) on the morning of June 2 and appeared to be falling out of the race, but a 19-3 run carried them back into the hunt. The Blue Jays also floundered early in the season, but have climbed back to their familiar perch at the top of the division ladder.
Now, the team on the move is the Red Sox, who got off to an 11-3 start only to fall all over themselves for two months before rejoining the race. They have come back with a fury and will carry a 27-7 run into
the opener of the three-game series tonight at Camden Yards.
It has become a critical series for the Orioles, who were swept by the Blue Jays in a two-game SkyDome series and are four games back. That isn't a major deficit with two months remaining, but no one can afford to cede too much ground when there are three teams ahead of them.
The veteran core of the rejuvenated Red Sox rotation will face the Orioles this weekend, starting with left-hander Frank Viola tonight and continuing with right-handers Roger Clemens and Danny Darwin. The Orioles counter with streaking left-hander Jamie Moyer tonight and Ben McDonald tomorrow before Mike Mussina makes his return Sunday after nearly two weeks on the sidelines with a sore back.
Both teams appear to be well-armed for this showdown, but the Orioles have much more to lose. They don't want to fall too far back just when the race is about to take shape.