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Contenders' task at hand: Play, win, guess and hope


For the Orioles and Cleveland Indians, the 1994 season has evolved into a case of simple mathematics. It's just a little simpler for the Indians than the Orioles.

After yesterday's doubleheader split, the Indians were one game behind the Central Division-leading Chicago White Sox. The Orioles are also in second place, but trail the AL East-leading Yankees by five games.

The intrigue revolves around baseball's new format, which allows the non-division winner with the best record to join the postseason party. If, in fact, there is a postseason.

The opposing managers at Camden Yards had a slightly different perspective of the unsettled situation. After losing to the Orioles, 10-4, yesterday afternoon, the Indians' Mike Hargrove said he wasn't looking at this four-game series as a duel for a wild-card spot in the playoffs.

"We're not thinking about that third [actually fourth] spot," said Hargrove, momentarily overlooking the AL West representative. "We're thinking about Chicago. Those are the people we want to catch and then we won't [have to] worry about the wild card."

Trailing the Yankees by five games, Oates is almost forced to take a more realistic approach. "We're playing it like we have 20 games left in the season -- and we're one game out of a playoff spot," he said between games.

"Aug. 16 is the earliest date [for a strike] that I've heard," said Oates. "So that's what I'm preparing for -- but we can adjust. If they [the players, who will determine the potential walkout date] come back and give us three more games [until Aug. 19], then we have three more games.

"The idea is to finish as high as you can, but the main thing is to be in a position to play in the postseason. So we have to play these [next 20] games as though they were in the last weeks of the season."

Making up five games on the Yankees in such a short span is not impossible, but it is improbable. That leaves the Indians, or the White Sox if they fall out of the Central Division lead, as the closest target.

"We don't know what's going to happen [in the event of a strike], but you want to get yourself into position [to be eligible for postseason play] in case something happens," said Oates.

After splitting yesterday's day-night doubleheader, the Orioles trailed the Indians by two games in the race for the final AL playoff spot. Owning one of the three best winning percentages at the time of the expected work stoppage would provide a degree of security. But you have to wonder how much effect the jockeying for position will have on the overall picture.

There won't be any guarantees unless the balance of the regular season is canceled, and play resumes with the playoffs. And that is as unlikely a scenario as a split season, which happened in 1981, when play was interrupted for 50 days.

It may be a case of simple mathematics, but there's no simple solution. It's just a guessing game.

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