AL playoff teams

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Red Sox (86-58)

What they do well: Survive. All year, the Red Sox have pieced things together, getting pitching from unexpected sources just when they have needed it -- wins from Vaughn Eshelman, Zane Smith and Tim Wakefield. That bought time for Roger Clemens fTC and Jose Canseco to recover from injuries.

Achilles' heel: Their defense, one of the worst in baseball, consistently has given them trouble. Second baseman Luis Alicea is a problem; even when he does make a play, he rarely fields a ball cleanly, which hurts when the Red Sox are trying for double plays.

Critical player: Jose Canseco. Cleveland is going to score runs, there's not much doubt about that. Canseco is capable of getting very hot and mashing the ball, and the Red Sox need this to happen. Now.

Intrigue: The Red Sox have suffered, over the past 75 years, from the Curse of the Bambino. As legend would have it, the trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees before the 1920 season doomed the organization, which has not won a World Series since 1918.

Postseason history: Legendary. They lost the World Series in 1946, and in 1967, and in 1975, against the Cincinnati Reds. Then in 1986, they came within one strike of beating the Mets.

If they win, this will be why: Knuckleballer Wakefield, who can dominate when his pitches are floating just right, is pitching Game No. 3. Lately, he has been getting hit pretty hard.

Indians (100-44)

What they do well: Cleveland bashes, with the best lineup in recent memory. Albert Belle is the first player in history to hit 50 doubles and 50 homers in the same season. Eddie Murray is a sure Hall of Famer. Kenny Lofton is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.

Achilles' heel: Starting pitchers. The Indians have an awesome offense, but their starters -- Charles Nagy, Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser -- can be hit and hit hard. They are not dominant, along the lines of a Randy Johnson.

Critical player: Shortstop Omar Vizquel. His primary duty for Cleveland is turning double plays, but he is a pest as a hitter. Because of all the great sluggers around him, the Red Sox need to get Vizquel out whenever possible. He gave the Orioles fits this year, drawing walks and slapping singles ahead of Baerga and Belle.

Intrigue: Closer Jose Mesa is a Cy Young and Most Valuable Player candidate, after having one of the greatest seasons by any reliever at any time. However, he hasn't had to face much failure this year. It will be interesting to see how he handles the postseason pressure.

Postseason history: You remember. Giants pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes -- that's the New York Giants -- crushes everything he sees and Willie Mays makes that great over-the-shoulder catch to rob Vic Wertz and the Indians are swept in 1954. That's the last time Cleveland played in the playoffs.

If they win, this will be why:If they win, this will be why: They play like they have been playing all year.

Mariners (79-66)

What they do well: The Mariners hit. A deep lineup, with the likes of Ken Griffey, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez and Mike Blowers. Even catcher Dan Wilson, thought to be all field and no hit, has had a solid season.

Achilles' heel: The bullpen. Not a lot of depth beyond closer Norm Charlton. Manager Lou Piniella said yesterday that his dream game is Randy Johnson for seven innings and Charlton for two. However, Charlton, coming back from arm trouble, is not exceptionally durable, and pitching back-to-back games, as is often required in the postseason, could wear on him.

Critical player: Andy Benes, acquired from the San Diego Padres at the end of July, has been very good or very bad for the Mariners, and Seattle needs him to step up. He's scheduled to start Game 2, and could come back and pitch Game 5 against the Yankees, if Piniella changes his rotation around.

Intrigue: The chances of a new ballpark seemed dead in May, after Griffey broke his wrist. They improved when the team acquired Vince Coleman and Benes, then surged in the days after a voter referendum that eventually failed. If Seattle advances deep into the playoffs, Mariners fever could translate into ballpark construction.

Postseason history: Never been in the playoffs or World Series before.

If they win, this will be why:If they win, this will be why: They find a way to beat David Cone at least once, and because Johnson wins Game 3 on Friday night.

Yankees (79-65)

What they do well: They're very capable of playing solid baseball, with veterans Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly and Paul O'Neill delivering big hits and making critical plays in the field. The Yankees usually won't beat themselves.

Achilles' heel: Their lineup is loaded with left-handed hitting, making them extremely vulnerable to left-handed pitching. Luckily for the Yankees, they'll have to face Randy Johnson just once in this series, in Game 3. However, that means New York could be backed into a corner if Seattle splits the first two games and then wins with Johnson. New York needs to win both games at Yankee Stadium.

Critical player: Steve Howe. He'll be used in the late innings to pitch to Ken Griffey and Tino Martinez. At times, Howe has been awful. Over the past weekend, however, he pitched effectively; the Yankees need him to be the bridge from the starting pitcher to closer John Wetteland.

Intrigue: If the Yankees are waxed, it figures that owner George ++ Steinbrenner will consider canning general manager Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter. A good postseason showing, however, could keep Showalter in New York for at least one more year.

Postseason history: The most storied October team in baseball, with at least one championship in each decade from the '20s to the '70s. But the Yankees have not been in the playoffs or World Series since 1981. Just ask Mattingly, who is in the postseason for the first time.

If they win, this will be why: David Cone and Andy Pettitte pitch deep into games, which would enable Showalter to bypass his bullpen. The Yankees cannot count on Jack McDowell, who is suffering from a strained back. At the least, his performance will be hindered; at the worst, he'll be scratched from his start.

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