Playoff coals get Red-hot in NL; Cincy's push heats up wild card, NL Central with week remaining


The major-league baseball season lasts about six months, but for three National League contenders, it all comes down to the next six days.

For that matter, the composition of the NL playoffs could be decided in the next 72 hours.

The Houston Astros and the Cincinnati Reds, tied in the National League Central standings, come face to face tonight at the Astrodome in Houston for the opener of a two-game series that will have a heavy bearing on the outcome of the division race and the wild-card derby.

The Atlanta Braves, still smelling of champagne after clinching the National League East on Sunday, arrive at Shea Stadium tonight for a three-game series that could have tremendous implications -- short- and long-term -- for the struggling Mets.

"We're not dead," Mets reliever John Franco said after his club suffered its sixth straight loss Sunday. "We're not dead yet. We're a long way from being dead."

If that sounds a little too much like a bad Monty Python routine, Mets manager Bobby Valentine isn't laughing. He said recently that he should be fired if the Mets don't reach the playoffs this year, and he just might if the club doesn't avenge last week's disastrous three-game sweep in Atlanta.

"It's a six-game season now," Franco said. "Hopefully, we'll play our next six games a lot better than we played our last six."

They couldn't do any worse. The Mets lost three to the Braves, then compounded their agony by dropping three more to the slumping Philadelphia Phillies. The ill-timed losing streak dropped them out of the NL East race and allowed the Reds to overtake them in the wild-card standings.

"It just goes to show you that anything can turn around very fast in baseball," Braves manager Bobby Cox said during his club's division title celebration Sunday. "In six games, we gained six games. That's impossible -- you think -- but it happens."

The Reds can only hope that the Braves don't lose focus. The series that begins tonight at Shea no longer has any NL East implications, but it could have a major impact on the NL playoff picture and even the Braves' chances of reaching the World Series.

If the Braves knock the Mets out of the postseason, they will be guaranteed (by virtue of the best record in the league) of drawing the wild-card team in the Division Series -- either the Reds or the Astros. If not, they run a slight risk of ending up paired with the Arizona Diamondbacks, which could mean facing superstar pitcher Randy Johnson twice in the first round.

Should the Mets hold on, the Braves cannot play the wild-card team from their own division, so Atlanta would play the division winner with the worst record. Right now, that would figure to be the NL Central winner, but the Astros or Reds still are mathematically capable of finishing with a better record than the Diamond- backs.

The Braves can remove all doubt by dispensing with the Mets, which would leave them with a favorable first-round matchup since they dominated the Reds and the Astros during the regular season.

Atlanta won the season series with the Reds, 8-1, and the Braves' pitching staff had a 3.26 ERA in the season series. The Braves won six of seven against the Astros, though not in quite as dominating a fashion (4.26 ERA).

Either opponent would be preferable to opening against the Diamondbacks, who played the Braves tougher (3-3) and could offset Atlanta's likely home-field advantage with Johnson in Game 1.

The Reds -- by virtue of a clutch five-game winning streak -- have put themselves in position to compete for both the NL Central title and the wild-card berth. They have dominated the season series with the Astros, winning eight of 11, but probably would settle for a split of the two-game set and a chance to close out strong against the fifth-place Milwaukee Brewers during the final weekend while the Astros return to the Astrodome to face the underachieving Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Brewers are not an inconsequential opponent. They just took two of three from the Astros to tighten up the NL Central race and have split eight previous meetings with the Reds. But the Reds have the best road record in the majors (49-27) and appear to have a lot of late-season momentum.

If the Mets can stay alive during the three-game set against the Braves, they will be in a position to finish well against the sub-.500 Pittsburgh Pirates in New York.

The American League playoff picture has cleared up considerably over the past few days. The Texas Rangers clinched the West Division over the weekend and all but eliminated the surprising Oakland Athletics from the wild-card race.

The only question surrounds the postseason matchups, and that isn't all that tough to figure out. The New York Yankees will play the Rangers, and the Cleveland Indians will play the wild-card Boston Red Sox in the two Division Series unless the Rangers gain two games to finish with a record equal to or better than the Indians.

The Yankees cannot play against the Red Sox in the first round, so the other division titlist with the best record would earn that right. In case of a tie, the Rangers would draw the wild-card team by virtue of their 7-3 head-to-head record against the Indians, but that would be something of a mixed blessing.

The Rangers can't welcome another matchup against the Yankees, who have knocked Texas out of the playoffs two of the past three years, but the alternative is a best-of-five series against a Red Sox team that will send presumptive Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez in Game 1 and, if necessary, a decisive Game 5.

That might be the best option based on head-to-head competition. The Rangers won five of nine games against the Red Sox in the regular season, but just four of 12 against the Yankees.

Pub Date: 9/28/99

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