Division Series advantage goes to dominant starters; Martinez, Johnson hold 1st-round aces for Red Sox, D'backs


It doesn't seem fair, really. The eight major-league teams that survived the long, hot summer now have to put their impressive seasons on the line in a best-of-five Division Series format that places a premium on the game's most dominant starting pitchers.

Not a bad time to be Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams or Arizona Diamondbacks skipper Buck Showalter.

The Red Sox slipped into the playoffs as the American League wild-card team, but they don't figure to be a decided underdog when they open the playoffs against the Cleveland Indians tomorrow night at Jacobs Field.

Presumptive Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez -- clearly the most overpowering pitcher in baseball this year -- is scheduled to pitch Game 1. If he pitches the way he has all season, the Indians will be fighting uphill the rest of the series.

National League Cy Young candidate Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks presents the same problem for the New York Mets in Game 1 at Bank One Ballpark tonight. If the Big Unit jacks up a big game, the Mets are going to be hard-pressed to put up a big fight in the first round of the postseason.

Of course, that just adds to the intrigue. The three-tiered playoff system has some flaws, but it also has its advantages. Who doesn't want to see if Martinez can help the Red Sox break the "Curse of the Bambino"? What baseball fan isn't going to tune in to see if Johnson can set a playoff strikeout record?

The postseason is all about subplots, and they are everywhere. The New York Yankees may not be the same team that set an American League record with 114 regular-season victories last year, but they enter Game 1 against the Texas Rangers tonight as the AL favorites to return to the World Series.

The Atlanta Braves, who along with the Yankees are trying to make the case that they are the team of the '90s, again enter the postseason as the National League team to beat, but they have been beaten the past two Octobers under similar circumstances.

The Yankees and Braves have a lot in common. They each finished the '99 campaign with the best record in their league, and they enter the playoffs with troubling questions about their vaunted starting rotations.

Likely Hall of Famer Roger Clemens was supposed to be the ace of the Yankees' staff after the blockbuster deal that put him in pinstripes last spring. Instead, he struggled down the stretch and dropped behind Orlando Hernandez and Andy Pettitte in the playoff rotation.

Right-hander David Cone has fallen even farther down the depth chart. He made national headlines by pitching a perfect game on July 18, but has not been the same since. He is tentatively scheduled to start Game 4.

The Braves still have the best pitching staff in the National League, but five-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux has never been invincible in the postseason (9-8), and the club will depend more heavily on young Kevin Millwood this October than playoff-hardened veterans Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

Millwood is coming off an 18-7 performance that featured the second-best ERA in the National League. He was lined up perfectly for the Game 1 assignment tonight, but manager Bobby Cox chose to go with the more experienced Maddux, who is coming off another outstanding season.

It's all relative, of course. Even though the Yankees won't enter tonight's game with the same aura of invincibility that enveloped them in 1999, they still have the deepest pitching staff in the league. Rangers starter Aaron Sele (18-9) matches up well with Hernandez in Game 1, but the Yankees' rotation clearly is superior from top to bottom.

The Rangers got to the playoffs largely on the strength of their star-studded offensive lineup, which features a pair of MVP candidates -- former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro and Gold Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez. That gives them a puncher's chance to upend the Yankees and avenge one-sided Division Series defeats in 1996 and '98, but cast in a similar role last year, they batted a combined .141 and scored just one run in a disappointing three-game sweep.

In all, the Rangers have lost six straight postseason games to the Yankees and were dominated in the season series this year (8-4), but they are not complaining about their third playoff visit to New York in the last four seasons.

"It's important for us not to get caught up in the past few series or the last three or four years," manager Johnny Oates said. "We're trying to talk about our guys focusing on the opportunity as opposed to the obstacle. Sometimes you start looking at the obstacle and it becomes too big to overcome."

Palmeiro agrees. The home-field advantage and the pitching edge make the Yankees a decided favorite, but the Rangers have been preparing for this eventuality since spring training.

"We knew we'd have to face the Yankees some time," Palmeiro said yesterday. "It doesn't matter if it is the first or second round. The road to the World Series goes through New York, so we might as well do it now."

The series between the Red Sox and Indians might be the most interesting of all, considering the bitter rivalry that has developed between the two franchises.

They made headlines a couple of times during the regular season, first when a brushback war led to a pair of bench-clearing incidents at Fenway Park, and again when Williams all but accused the Indians of using their video system to steal signs at Jacobs Field.

If that created any lasting animosity, the Indians know that they cannot afford to dwell on it and expect to do anything against Martinez.

"We have to beat Pedro, man," Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel said recently. "We have to show we can beat him. We beat him before, and we have to do that again. The No. 1 game is always important to win. It doesn't mean anything if we go the full five games or seven games. It is just the first step."

It's more than just a first step, of course. If Martinez scores a convincing victory in Game 1, the wild-card Red Sox will suddenly be cast as the favorites to close out the series.

Martinez faced Cleveland four times during the regular season, going 2-0 with 2.17 ERA, but the Indians still seem confident that they can win three out of five games.

"If we could win three straight, that would be great, but that's going to be real hard," Indians catcher Sandy Alomar said. "Game 1 is always important. If you can knock out their pitcher right away, that's good. Every game counts, though. We need to win three. Whatever three, I don't care."

The Red Sox have reason to be confident, too, after winning the season series by a decided margin -- eight games to four -- but they also know what they're up against.

"We've been in the postseason, and we know what they can do," said Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. "They definitely have a lot of veterans, and they've been in the postseason before. They know how to win. We played them last year, and they knocked us out. Hopefully, we can turn it around this year."

No doubt, the National League entrants would have said the same kind of things yesterday, but none of them knew who they were going to play, because last night's wild-card playoff between the Mets and the Reds determined the matchups in both NL series.

The Astros were happy to take potluck, after a season that started with the loss of outfielder Moises Alou to a serious knee injury and includes the frightening memory of manager Larry Dierker having a seizure in the dugout.

"If you would have told me in spring training everything that happened to us this year, I would have been happy to be at .500," said Dierker, who returned from brain surgery to finish the season. "It's been a remarkable year, but, from here on out, nobody will be happy if we don't win a few games in the playoffs."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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