As days pass, wild-card race bound to draw O's

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just because the Orioles have a big lead in the American League East doesn't mean that the race for the AL wild-card berth bears no significance as the club closes in on the halfway point of the regular season.

In fact, it is hugely significant because the Orioles -- at least at the moment -- don't have to compete for a wild-card berth, and because they might play the eventual wild-card winner in the first round of the playoffs.

If the season were to end today, the New York Yankees would be the American League wild-card entry in the three-tiered postseason tournament, which creates the possibility of a rematch with the Orioles in the American League Championship Series. If you like that idea, root for the status quo.

The Orioles would play the Seattle Mariners in one divisional series and the Yankees would play the Cleveland Indians in the other. Based on past performances and present roster configurations, the Orioles and Yankees would be favored to move into the ALCS for the second year in a row, with the Orioles holding the home-field advantage this time.

Sound good? The Orioles have won all four of their head-to-head games against the Yankees this season, but fans could be treated to an extended playoff preview when the two clubs play each other eight times in an 11-day period in early September. The Orioles clearly were the better team in the first half, but there is no guarantee that will remain the case.

If they are still well in front, the two four-game series in September could provide an opportunity for the Orioles to determine who they play in the postseason with a decisive performance -- if any of the other American League contenders are close enough to take advantage.

Forget about anyone else in the East. The Toronto Blue Jays have been slipping and the Boston Red Sox don't figure to be around at the end. The real wild-card candidates figure to be the Chicago White Sox and the the two teams that finish behind the leader in a tough-to-call AL West race.

Presumably, the Orioles would much rather face the Texas Rangers or California Angels in the first round of the playoffs if the Mariners fulfill their preseason expectations. The White Sox also would be preferable, though the Orioles have won just one season series against them over the past 10 years.

Maybe it's too early to worry about it, but the wild-card standings will be popping up in a newspaper near you in the next few weeks. Don't look for the Orioles to be listed there, but the outcome just might determine whether they get to the World Series this year.

'Boss' hates grousing

Hideki Irabu is scheduled to make his New York Yankees' debut on July 10, and owner George Steinbrenner warned the team that he will not tolerate further complaints about the Japanese pitcher from teammates who are disgruntled about his big contract and his quick arrival in the major leagues.

"We'll get rid of anyone who doesn't welcome him and help him adjust to New York," Steinbrenner said.

Subtle differences

Atlanta Braves right-hander John Smoltz was 14-2 at this point last year and well on the way to the National League Cy Young Award. He entered the weekend just 6-7 and wondering what he has to do to string a few victories together.

There is no easy answer. Smoltz and the Braves insist that he is the same pitcher who won 24 games last year, but there are enough subtle statistical differences in his performances this year to explain why he has not been a dominating pitcher.

Last year, for instance, he averaged 9.79 strikeouts per nine innings; this year, 6.97. In 1996, he held opposing batters to a .215 batting average. In 1997, that number has climbed to a less spectacular, but still respectable .258. His ERA is only slightly higher (3.20) than last year (2.94), but the intangibles that can turn a performance one way or the other have not worked in his favor this season.

"John's numbers so far indicate he's having an excellent year, except for the won-lost record and that doesn't give you a full picture," said Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "I don't think there are 10 pitchers in the National League throwing better. It's just that last year he threw better than anyone."

This may be hard to believe, but Smoltz says there isn't much difference between last year's career performance and this year's frustrating encore.

"I think I've pitched better this year, but I had better stuff consistently last year," he said. "Results sometimes outweigh how you're pitching. But if you asked me if I've had a bad start, I'd say no."

Rookie runaway

It's going to be hard to keep Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra from running off with American League Rookie of the Year honors. Anaheim Angels pitcher Jason Dickson got off to an impressive start, but Garciaparra is playing every day at the hardest defensive position, and he is putting up strong offensive numbers.

He's on a pace to hit 25 home runs and roll up more than 90 RBIs out of the leadoff spot, but he could do far less than that offensively and still be a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. The Red Sox, after all, rushed him to the big leagues largely because of his glove. Everything else is just a bonus.

Other Alomar rolling

Indians catcher Sandy Alomar has spent the past couple years in the professional shadow of his younger brother, but that has changed this year. He is on an unbelievable tear at the plate. Yesterday, he hit in his 25th straight game, the longest such streak by an Indians player since Dale Mitchell's 27-game string in 1953 -- and ranks second in the American League in hitting.

Could he become the first American League catcher ever to win a batting title? He's not that far behind league leader Frank Thomas, but Alomar said it's no coincidence that a catcher hasn't finished atop the league hitting rankings.

"Hitting is about bat speed," Alomar said. "Catchers get worn down and they lose bat speed. That's why you don't see catchers winning batting titles."

No respect

Colorado Rockies outfielder Larry Walker continues to lead the National League in hitting, but most of the .400 frenzy has centered on San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who entered the weekend batting .398.

The conventional wisdom holds that Gwynn is a pure hitter who has a legitimate chance to become the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to finish a season batting .400 or better, and Walker is a power hitter who eventually will lose altitude -- even in Denver.

Gwynn, however, said people are not giving Walker enough credit.

"I'm not leading the league in hitting, but everybody thinks I'm the guy who can do it," he said. "It's like, 'Oh, Larry can't do it. He'll fold.' And I don't think that's right. He should get his credit. He deserves it."

Walker, however, is one of the skeptics, and he has tried to downplay the possibility and dampen the growing media interest in his amazing season.

"I can't talk about it," he said. "It isn't realistic."

Dodgers in trouble

It just might be time to give up on the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were considered a strong bet to reach the postseason for the third straight year. They have fallen into third place and must cope with the loss of pitcher Ramon Martinez, who might be lost for the season with a slight rotator cuff tear.

The Dodgers might have enough pitching depth to weather that potentially devastating loss, but only if a couple of their other starting pitchers can step up. Pedro Astacio has not won since May 1 and Ismael Valdes apparently is suffering from a crisis of confidence.

The club is hoping to get a lift from veteran knuckleballer Tom Candiotti, but the pitching situation appears to be critical for Los Angeles.

Edmonds again

Baseball fans are still buzzing about the Willie Mays-like catch that Angels outfielder Jim Edmonds made in Kansas City a couple weeks ago, but just to keep the memory fresh he made another spectacular game-saving grab in Monday's 1-0 victory over the Texas Rangers.

Both catches were impressive in their own right, but they were even more so when you consider Edmonds nearly underwent arthroscopic surgery recently because of persistent soreness in his knee.

He said it

Mark McGwire, after a fan was offered an autographed bat, but tried to hold out for a bat, an autographed ball and a signed McGwire jersey in exchange for the ball that McGwire hit 538 feet at the Kingdome: "It's always gimme, gimme, gimme with fans. What's wrong with an autographed bat? We told him to hit the road."

Crooked numbers

The Boston Red Sox went 4-2 on a recent road trip despite a combined ERA of 8.65 in those six games.

The Chicago Cubs don't like the great indoors. They were swept in a three-game series last week at the Astrodome, to drop their all-time record there to 77-128, or a .376 winning percentage.

The mammoth home run that Mark McGwire hit at Jacobs Field in May has been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, even though it put a dent in the scoreboard. It originally was estimated at 485 feet, but the distance dropped to 434 feet when the Indians began making exact measurements in preparation for the All-Star home run contest.

The Angels are 6-0 against the Oakland Athletics this year, which is quite a switch. They haven't won a season series against the A's since 1986.

David Cone, one year removed from surgery to remove an aneurysm, has struck out 38 batters in his last 25 innings.

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