It figures in this wildly unpredictable year that the New York Yankees' most serious rivals for a wild-card playoff spot also could be their biggest allies.
There are two crucial series left in the scramble to determine the American League's fourth postseason team. Both will pit the Seattle Mariners against the Texas Rangers, the first starting tomorrow night at the Kingdome, the other closing the season at The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.
If those teams continue to play as they have most of the season, somewhere in close proximity to .500, the Yankees easily could slide into Fall Ball at the expense of four AL have-nots. After concluding with the Orioles today, the Yankees finish the season with 12 games against the Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers -- all sub .500 teams that have been on serious skids.
Seven of those final 12 games will be against the Blue Jays, who have lost five of six to the Yankees this year.
Throw in a couple of last-week off-days that will permit manager Buck Showalter to go with his top three starters -- David Cone, Jack McDowell and Andy Pettitte -- in the last seven games, and it spells a decided advantage for the Yankees.
Cone has won eight straight decisions against the Tigers and Brewers; Pettitte is 7-1 at Yankee Stadium, where he will make two of his last three starts; and McDowell will get another start at Milwaukee's County Stadium, where he is 5-0 lifetime. The only chink in the armor is McDowell's 4-10 lifetime record against the Blue Jays, but the two-time defending World Series champions are hardly what they used to be.
The Kansas City Royals are still hanging in this race of also-rans, but they can be expected to depart shortly. They have six games left against the Cleveland Indians, against whom they are 0-6 this year.
That leaves the Yankees, Mariners and Rangers to duke it out -- and the wonder of it all is that Texas is still hanging around, considering its woeful pitching staff. That deficiency is likely to be costly against the Mariners, who will be able to pitch Randy Johnson twice against the Rangers.
The Mariners are a remarkable 23-3 in games started by the "Big Unit," and the 6-foot-10 left-hander could be the key if he could start twice in a first-round playoff series that will be a best-of-five affair.
It appears the only thing that could deny the Yankees a playoff spot would be if the Mariners or the Rangers can dominate the seven games between those two teams.
The team that doesn't win at least four of those games will be out, and if the final verdict is 4-3, the Yankees should be home free.
With Johnson available for each series, the Mariners should dismiss the Rangers, which would leave it up to the Yankees to take care of their end of business.