Unlikely walk-ons add to stretch run; Low-budget A's, Reds cut to playoff chase


It was 10 years ago -- right here in Charm City -- that a baseball team of little repute proved that hope and desire can be a currency more valuable than the big money that usually controls professional sports.

The "Why Not?" Orioles didn't reach the postseason, but they turned the September stretch into something strange and wonderful by transcending the limits of their questionable talent.

That appears to be happening again this year in Oakland, another city of deflated baseball expectations that is flirting with an October surprise.

Who would have thought back in April that the Athletics would be 16 games over .500 and just two games back in the wild-card race with less than three weeks to go in the season? And they are not the only surprise team heading down the stretch.

The Cincinnati Reds don't qualify as quite the dark horse that has emerged in the American League West, but they have captured the imagination of National League fans with a barrage of home runs that has kept them close on the heels of the favored Houston Astros in the NL Central and pressing the big-market New York Mets in the wild-card derby.

So much for the popular assumption that the only way to compete in the 1990s is with a checkbook.

The September stretch is throwing much of baseball's new conventional wisdom up for grabs. The A's and Reds are proving that you can shop for champagne on a beer budget, and some of the teams that already seemed to have their postseason reservations are being forced to consider the alternative.

Even the mighty New York Yankees, who were considered an all-but-automatic playoff participant at midseason, recently got a wake-up call from the surging Boston Red Sox, who swept a weekend series at Yankee Stadium to pull within 3 1/2 games of first place.

The Red Sox, who are being pushed by the A's in the wild-card race, apparently have decided to keep their eyes off the rear-view mirror and go for a divisional upset. The three-game sweep was their first in the Bronx since 1986.

"We're just playing aggressive, that's all," said manager Jimy Williams after Sunday's victory over former Red Sox ace Roger Clemens. "We know we have to."

Yankees manager Joe Torre is doing what he does best -- remaining calm in crisis, but the pressure will increase exponentially if the Red Sox keep coming and the A's stay close.

"If there's pressure, so what?" Torre told reporters over the weekend. "You've got to deal with pressure every day when you play here anyway. With what we've been through the last four years, so be it. Whatever we have to deal with, we deal with. I'm confident that we'll be able to deal with it with a level head and handle the pressure we need to handle. We've done it before with the same people."

The same kind of dynamic is playing out in the NL East, where the Mets are one game behind the first-place Atlanta Braves at the same time that they're trying to run away from the Reds and assure themselves of at least the wild-card berth.

Remember how everyone was bemoaning the demise of the head-to-head division race last year, when five of the six division titles were won in a walk? Well, there are four division races that are very much in doubt as the 1999 season heads into its final furlong.

The Yankees are hearing footsteps in the AL East, and the Texas Rangers are not entirely comfortable with the streaking A's only 5 1/2 games behind them in the West, especially with a three-game showdown looming next week at the Ballpark in Arlington.

The National League features the tightening race in the East and a tough battle for the Central title between the Astros and the Reds.

In each league, there are five legitimate playoff teams, so somebody is going to have to stay home in October. Who will it be?

The schedule certainly does not smile on the Mets, who face the highest concentration of winning teams down the stretch, including six head-to-head matchups with the Braves. They have built up a 2 1/2-game cushion in the wild-card race, but the Reds have the light- est remaining schedule of the NL contenders.

The A's, not surprisingly, remain the long shot in the American League, even though most of their upcoming opponents are playing out the string. They have a shot next week at making up ground on the Rangers, but the likelihood of either the Red Sox or Yankees going into a protracted nose dive during the final weeks of the regular season seems distant.

The Yankees and Red Sox each play a gut-check series this week against the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field, but each closes out the regular season with 10 straight games against teams that are far below .500. The Yankees play seven of their last 10 games against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and the Red Sox play seven of 10 against the Orioles.

Oakland's best hope was for the Yankees to trounce the Red Sox over the weekend and create a bigger opening in the wild-card race, but that didn't happen.

"It would have been nice if the Yankees would have beat up on Boston, but we've got to take care of ourselves," said outfielder Jason Giambi, one of three A's hitters with 30 or more home runs. "As long as we're playing good baseball, we've got a chance. That's all that matters, as long as we keep winning games."

They have done that, mopping up the Devil Rays to pick up a game when the Red Sox finally lost last night. The same goes for the Reds, but they also have found it difficult to gain ground on their competition in both the division and wild-card races.

They set several home run records during last week's power surge, but they didn't gain an inch on the first-place Astros, who swept the Chicago Cubs over the weekend and beat Philadelphia last night to extend their winning streak to 11.

The Astros might just have too much pitching to be overtaken. Jose Lima (20-7) and Mike Hampton (20-3) have Cy Young credentials, and Shane Reynolds still has a shot at 18 victories.

Maybe it's the dreaded large-market/small-market dichotomy at work, but the Astros don't face another team with a winning record until they play host to the Reds for a two-game showdown series during the final week of play. Still, somebody's got to cool off eventually.

"I think we can ride this thing out to the bitter end ourselves," said Reds outfielder Dmitri Young. "If the Astros are going to take it, they'll have to play .900 ball the rest of the month."

Confidence is a wonderful thing, especially the kind that develops when a club cranks 29 home runs in a nine-game span, but the Reds are a legitimate postseason threat. They are on pace to win 99 games this year, which isn't bad for a team stuck in the middle of baseball's payroll rankings.

Will it be enough to propel them into the Division Series? That could depend largely on the Mets, who have won eight of their past 10 and appear to have a soft week ahead against the Colorado Rockies and Phillies.

The four-team scramble in the National League should work to the distinct advantage of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Barring a dramatic late-season collapse, they should be in a position to conserve their energy for the postseason and line up their rotation so that pitching ace Randy Johnson is available twice in the first round of playoffs.

What a huge advantage that might be if the other NL contenders are forced to expend their rotations fighting it out in the final week of the regular season.

That advantage, however, would figure to be less pronounced in the American League, because the runaway Indians -- the winningest team in the league -- do not have a truly dominant starting pitcher.

They have to be rooting for the A's to push the Red Sox out of the wild-card berth, because the alternative is likely to be two games against presumptive Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez in the best-of-five Division Series.

Not exactly the best route to the World Series.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 9/14/99

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