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Playoff setup whiffs with Johnson, too


The shame is that Randy Johnson might pitch only once more in the postseason. Baseball needs him to start eight of a possible 19 playoff games, the way Greg Maddux will for Atlanta. jTC But, as usual, baseball screwed up.

Johnson pitched a three-hitter to lift Seattle to the AL West title yesterday, but now comes the tough part. The Mariners' reward for defeating California was a cross-country flight to New York and the loss of Johnson until Game 3 of their five-game series against the Yankees.

How can the wild-card team be in such an advantageous position? Good question. If the Yankees go up 2-0 -- and it's a possibility with Chris Bosio and Andy Benes starting for Seattle on three days' rest -- the new format will look that much more ridiculous.

Ah, wait 'til next year.

If baseball is smart -- and how many times has that phrase been written? -- it will seed the four playoff teams in each league next season, with the wild-card winner playing the team with the best record, regardless of division.

That alone wouldn't have helped the Mariners -- they still would have needed to fly cross-country to face Boston, the division champion with the better record. But obviously, with the increased chance of such one-game playoffs, an extra day off or two is needed.

Yes, the Mariners got themselves into this mess by blowing a two-game lead with three to play. Yes, they finished with a worse regular-season record than the Yankees. The point is, they're division champions. The Yankees are not.

To think, this could be one of the great postseasons in history, at a time when the game needs it most.

Maddux vs. Albert Belle, how does that matchup sound? Game 7 of the World Series, scoreless game, two outs, ninth inning. The pre-eminent pitcher of his generation against the most feared slugger in the sport.

Maddux vs. Belle, full house at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Indians' 47-year drought vs. the Braves' unfulfilled '90s dynasty in the Politically Incorrect Series. Maddux vs. Mo Vaughn, just as good. Ditto for Hideo Nomo vs. Ken Griffey Jr. Or Johnson vs. the Rockies at Coors Field.

The playoffs offer all of these delicious possibilities. Of course, you won't get to see many of them, thanks to the Baseball's Network's idiotic regionalized coverage. But starting with Game 6 of the League Championship Series, the sport will go national again.

It won't be a moment too soon -- yet for the Mariners, it might be too late. Heck, this almost looks like a setup. The Yankees are home for two days. Their rotation is set up. And they will face Johnson once instead of twice.

Orioles advance scout Deacon Jones spoke in wonder about him the other day, recalling the time he held up his JUGS radar gun to clock Johnson's fastball, and was stunned by what he saw. Three digits -- 1-0-0, as in 100 mph -- for the first time.

The Angels' Tim Salmon predicted that Johnson "might break the sound barrier" in yesterday's playoff, and he wasn't far off. The Mariners are now 27-3 in Johnson's starts this season. And talk about clutch -- Johnson beat the Angels three times.

This is a pitcher who belongs in the October spotlight, a pitcher who could help invigorate the sport, a pitcher who would make the Mariners strong favorites over the Yankees, if only he was getting more than one start.

Instead, the Mariners are underdogs.

Yankees manager Buck Showalter held David Cone out of Sunday's game in Toronto, saving him for a possible playoff yesterday or a Game 1 start tonight. Now Cone will pitch on five days' rest, and probably return for Game 4.

Rookie of the Year favorite Andy Pettitte will start tomorrow at Yankee Stadium, where he is 8-2 with a 2.61 ERA. And Jack McDowell, recovering from a strained upper-back muscle, will pitch Game 3 after taking two weeks off, thanks to Showalter's juggling.

The Yankees badly need to win both games at the Stadium, with McDowell's condition uncertain and the noisy Kingdome a factor for games 3, 4 and 5. A Yankees-Red Sox ALCS would be magnificent. But don't count on it happening.

The Red Sox lack a left-hander to pitch against a Cleveland team that is a modest 35-33 against lefty starters the past two seasons. So, this series hinges on Roger Clemens, who went 7-2 with a 2.88 ERA in August and September.

Erik Hanson is capable of a quality start in Game 2, but the fading Tim Wakefield will pitch in Game 3. Clemens gets two cracks at the Tribe. And if he isn't the Roger of old, the Red Sox could get crushed.

Whatever, here we go: Don Mattingly in his first postseason, Jose Mesa in the October crucible, Davey Johnson in his final days with Cincinnati. How about an all-Ohio World Series? Or a Rockies-Indians slugfest?

The Indians might get there, but the Rockies won't. The pick here is a Cleveland-Atlanta World Series, with the Indians winning in seven games. On a home run by Belle. Off Maddux. With Mesa striking out the side for the save.

Baseball doesn't deserve such a finish.

But not even the dimwits who run this sport can keep it down.

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