Indians supplant Yankees as team to beat


All of a sudden it's as though the Orioles and New York Yankees aren't even in the same division. And not just because of the 3 1/2 games that separate them in the American League East.

The probability of a strike, and the uncertainty of its consequences, substantially increases the importance of what happens before the work stoppage takes place. Assuming there will be a settlement, which could be a major assumption, the division races could be dramatically altered by the games that would be left unplayed.

So, instead of gearing up for a three-game series that starts two weeks from Monday in New York, the Orioles' sights are retrained on the first four games they'll play after returning from the West Coast trip.

Back in April, few would've believed a four-game series against the Cleveland Indians at the end of July would be the most important of the year for the Orioles. But, at the moment, that's how this season, or what is left of it, stacks up.

Under baseball's expanded format, the three second-place teams compete for the fourth playoff spot in each league. The Orioles and Indians, second in the AL East and AL Central, respectively, also are scheduled to play again on the final weekend of the season, meaning their fate is likely to be decided in head-to-head meetings.

The Orioles, who trailed the Indians by one game going into last night, have six games left against the Yankees (here on Sept. 16-18 in addition to the three in New York Aug. 8-10). But there are no guarantees all, or any, of those games will be played, whereas the games between the Orioles and Indians almost certainly will be included in the final standings.

So, while the primary objective is still to win a division title, the realistic goal for both teams is to protect the alternate route. That being the case, the Orioles and Indians could be lining up for the most meaningful series ever played between the two teams.

All of which adds up to a four-game slugfest (in three days) at Camden Yards, starting with the day-night doubleheader on Tuesday. For the time being at least, the Indians have replaced the Yankees as the team the Orioles have to beat.

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