Fall baseball has a whole new look 3-tier playoff format makes debut tonight with four games


Baseball's new three-tiered playoff format makes its debut tonight with divisional showdowns arrayed from coast to coast, but it could not begin until the field of eight was complete.

The Seattle Mariners took care of that little piece of unfinished business last night, defeating the California Angels, 9-1, in a one-game division playoff to win the American League West title and move into a best-of-five divisional series against the wild-card New York Yankees.

So, here we go. The playoffs begin tonight in New York and Cleveland, Denver and Los Angeles. Four games. All at the same time, supposedly to maximize regional interest.

Everybody had a chance yesterday to catch their breaths. Everybody but the Mariners, who reached the postseason for the first time in their 19-year history, only to find themselves at a distinct disadvantage now that they have completed their amazing late-season comeback. They used projected Game 1 starter Randy Johnson for yesterday's playoff game, which means that they will not be able to use him again until at least Game 3.

The Mariners arrived in New York late last night sporting the AL batting champion (Edgar Martinez) and the best all-around player in the game (Ken Griffey), but they also will show up at Yankee Stadium with Johnson unavailable and with a severe case of jet lag after traveling from Texas to Seattle to New York over a 36-hour period.

The Yankees had to fight to the end to secure the AL wild-card berth, but they closed the season with five straight victories and they'll have all of their top pitchers rested and ready to go. David Cone (18-8) will start against Seattle's Chris Bosio (10-8) in Game 1. Rookie Andy Pettitte (12-9) is expected to face Andy Benes (7-2) in Game 2 tomorrow.

Of course, that's just one of the four series that get under way tonight. Here's a quick look at the others:

Red Sox vs. Indians

This is the real showcase series of the new divisional format. The Indians won 100 games in a 144-game season to prove that they are the super team of 1995. The Red Sox looked like no better than a fourth-place team in the AL East when the season started but caught the division with its contenders down.

Cleveland has it all, including the most dangerous hitter in the game. Outfielder Albert Belle became the first player in major-league history to amass 50 home runs and 50 doubles in the same season, and he did it with 18 games sliced off the 1995 schedule. He also has a lot of help. The Indians scored 837 runs this year, an average of 5.8.

The Indians also have two pitchers with 15 or more victories -- Orel Hershiser and Charles Nagy -- and the game's top closer, Jose Mesa. They finished at the top of the AL rankings in hitting, runs scored and ERA, which, on paper, would appear to be an unbeatable combination. The only thing they don't have is the home-field advantage. They play host to the first two games at Jacobs Field and would have to win two of three at Fenway Park if the Red Sox can steal one in Cleveland.

That's very possible, with Roger Clemens (10-5) set to go in Game 1. He may not be the same pitcher who once dominated the game, but he has pitched well enough down the stretch to give the Red Sox a chance to win the opener. Indians manager Mike Hargrove will send Dennis Martinez (12-5) to the mound tonight and start right-hander Orel Hershiser against Erik Hanson in Game 2.

The Red Sox figure to score their share of runs, with MVP candidate Mo Vaughn coming off the best regular season of his career and Boston also getting big performances from throughout the offensive lineup. The Red Sox ranked among the league's top teams in hitting, scoring and ERA, so an upset is not out of the question in this early showdown between two of the three winningest teams in the major leagues.

Braves vs. Rockies

The Atlanta Braves have soon-to-be four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux. They have playoff-hardened John Smoltz and three-time 20-game winner Tom Glavine. If you believe that pitching is 80 percent of the game, then the Colorado Rockies are in serious trouble this week.

Of course, the Rockies have proved that that axiom is not without exception. They hammered their way into the postseason -- clinching the wild-card berth Sunday with a characteristic 10-9 victory over the San Francisco Giants. If they can take advantage of a decided home-field advantage, they could put a scare into the heavily favored Braves.

It doesn't figure to happen that way. The Rockies finished the season with the worst staff ERA of any club in the National League (4.97). The Braves finished with the best in the major leagues (3.44). The difference between runs allowed and runs scored clearly favors the Braves, even though the Rockies averaged almost a run more than Atlanta.

But there is more than a mathematical equation at work. The Rockies have one of the most pronounced home-field advantages in baseball, so the supposed home-field disadvantage that they incur in the best-of-five divisional series could turn out to be a godsend. Especially if Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla and Andres Galarraga -- baseball's second 30-homer foursome -- come to play.

Statistically, the Rockies shouldn't be in this series, but if they light up Coors Field over the next two days, the Braves may not be able to recover.

Reds vs. Dodgers

In a best-of-five series, every odd-numbered game is particularly pivotal, so the Game 1 matchup tonight between Pete Schourek (18-7) and Ramon Martinez (17-7) likely will set the tone for a taut, suspenseful series between two traditional NL rivals.

The Reds recovered from a 1-8 start to run away with the NL Central, largely on the strength of a surprising starting rotation and a well-balanced attack. The Dodgers went right down to the final weekend with the second-place Rockies before Japanese rookie sensation Hideo Nomo defeated the San Diego Padres on Saturday night to clinch the NL West title.

Cincinnati had the second-best record in the league, and manager Davey Johnson had all the time in the world to prepare his pitching staff for the short series. Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda couldn't relax until Sunday, but he does have the pitching depth to compete with anyone.

Martinez is his biggest winner, but he might have liked the opportunity to open with Nomo, who has been the most effective starter on the staff. Nomo is 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA and was the only NL pitcher to strike out more than 200 batters (236), but he'll have to wait until Game 3 in Cincinnati to make his American postseason debut.

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