Races heat up almost all over In AL Central, Indians can relax with champagne; Stretch drive


Pennant pressure is building everywhere. The Orioles and New York Yankees are beginning a critical series. The Seattle Mariners are pushing the once-comfortable Texas Rangers. The

Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres are so close that they seem certain to take the National League West race down to the final weekend.

But there is room to breathe in the American League Central, where the Cleveland Indians broke open the champagne for the second straight season.

They will have the luxury of watching the rest of the AL contenders slug it out while manager Mike Hargrove spends the next 10 days lining up his pitching staff and getting his everyday players rested up for the divisional series.

Hargrove had to breathe a big sigh of relief after right-hander Jack McDowell put two strong outings back-to-back over the past week, including a complete-game victory over the Chicago White Sox on Monday night. If McDowell, who had struggled badly in August, is finding himself, it couldn't happen at a better time.

The Indians recently found out that they'll have to do without injured veteran Dennis Martinez the rest of the way, which makes McDowell's resurgence critical to the club's chances of returning to the World Series.

Cleveland clearly was the dominant team in the American League last year, but the Indians were not nearly so imposing with Martinez out and McDowell struggling. They have gotten a decent performance from young starter Chad Ogea, but McDowell needs to fill one of the first three spots in the rotation for them to win two playoff series and hope to get even with the pitching-rich Atlanta Braves.

This is his time. The victory over the White Sox was his seventh straight September victory, dating to the 1993 season, but he'll have to do something about October. His career record in postseason competition is 0-4.

The heat's still on

The Rangers clubhouse couldn't have been a fun place to be after last night's 5-2 loss to the Mariners in the second game of a suddenly crucial four-game showdown in the AL West. The Mariners appeared to be all but eliminated a week ago, but the victory was their seventh straight and cut the Rangers' division lead to four games.

No one can explain it, but the Rangers have 15 losses in their past 17 games at the Kingdome, a trend that -- if not reversed soon -- could put Texas under the gun during the final 10 days of the regular season.

"I don't why it happens, but I think it is overrated," manager Johnny Oates said after Monday night's 6-0 loss. "We know we have a good ballclub. We have the same kind of success against Cleveland that Seattle has against us."

Soft touch

Mariners manager Lou Piniella has never had reason to regret the club's decision to trade Darren Bragg to the Boston Red Sox for soft-throwing left-hander Jamie Moyer, who threw one of the best games of his career to defeat the Rangers on Monday


Moyer, who used to pitch for Oates in Baltimore, gave up four hits over eight innings and set a career high with his 12th victory in 15 decisions, helping the Mariners carry a string of shutout innings that ended at 29 last night.

The one that got away

The White Sox had hoped to be playing in a big head-to-head series this week, too, but they could not stay close enough to the first-place Indians to make their three-game series at Comiskey Park meaningful to the AL Central race.

The series still has some wild-card implications, but the White Sox appear to be fading, with seven losses in their past 11 games.

Unsung hero

If the Dodgers go on to win the NL West crown, a lot of people are going to point to the re-acquisition of veteran third baseman Tim Wallach as a major reason for the club's solid second-half play.

Wallach, released by the dismal California Angels earlier this year, rejoined the Dodgers after regular third baseman Mike Blowers went down with a knee injury.

Wallach has four homers and 19 RBIs in the month since his return, but those numbers don't tell the whole story. He has had several big hits and has been a steadying influence on a team of questionable heart.

The races

AL East ....... W-L ...... GB ... GR

New York ...... 85-64 .... -- ... 13

Orioles ....... 82-67 .... 3 .... 13

Wild card ..... W-L ...... GB ... GR

Orioles ....... 82-67 .... -- ... 13

Seattle ....... 79-70 .... 3 .... 12

Chicago ....... 80-72 .... 3 1/2 10

Orioles tonight

Opponent: New York Yankees

Site: Yankee Stadium, New York

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (12-11, 5.18) vs. Yankees' Andy Pettitte (21-8, 4.13)

Wild-card rules

How to determine the matchups for the first round of the American League playoffs:

The Central and West champions will have home-field advantage.

The better record of the Central and West champions will play the wild card.

If the wild card comes from the Central or West, it will play the champion not in its division.

The Central and West champions will not meet.


If the wild card is from the East, it would play the team with the best record between the Central and West champions. The East champion would play the other division champion.

If the wild card is from the Central, it would play the West champion. The East champion would play the Central champion.

If the wild card is from the West, it would play the Central champion. The West champ would play the East champion.

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