Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Stretch offers quite a hand, with or without wild card


It was in late 1993 that major-league owners decided to inject a little more excitement into the final months of each baseball season, instituting a three-tiered playoff format and adding a wild-card component to keep hope alive for more teams in September.

The wild-card format turned out to be an unqualified success, but if it had been pondered in 2000 instead of the early 1990s, the owners might have concluded that it was unnecessary.

There is no shortage of divisional competition as baseball heads into the September stretch. The final full month of the regular season began with four of the six divisions in doubt and the other two still well within the range of mathematical possibility.

In fact, three divisions are more closely contested than the National League wild-card race. Go figure.

The Atlanta Braves and New York Mets are locked in a divisional death grip in the NL East, which has long been the province of the dynastic Braves but may be poised for a changing of the guard. The Braves appeared to wrap up the division race on paper in late July when they acquired pitcher Andy Ashby to flesh out the best starting rotation in baseball, but the Mets are proving that the game is not played on the stat sheet.

They have battled back into a virtual dead heat at the top of the standings and have plenty of reasons to believe they can unseat the perennial NL East champs -- most notably the winningest home record in baseball, a deep rotation, the likely NL MVP (Mike Piazza) and one of the game's best closers (Armando Benitez). But the Mets don't seem particularly impressed with their standing in September.

"We learned last year that it's all about October," Piazza told reporters recently.

That may be true. The Mets lost to the Braves in the National League Championship Series after finishing a distant second in 1999. They are all but certain to be the NL wild-card team again if they don't win the division. Indeed, it all comes down to October, but if September plays out in their favor, they might be in better position to reach the World Series this year.

The schedule is weighted toward the road, but it is heavy with the worst teams in the National League. The Mets play 17 games in September against teams that presently are at least 18 games under .500. The Braves have three more home games in September, but their schedule is much more difficult, including six games against the tough Arizona Diamondbacks, six against solid non-contenders (Florida and Colorado) and the six showdown games with the Mets over an 11-day period starting Sept. 18. Their only respite will be a pair of series against last-place Montreal.

In this case, the wild-card race actually removes some suspense, since only a large-scale collapse by either team will prevent it from reaching the playoffs as the league's wild-card entrant.

The Mets-Braves rivalry may be the most exciting in baseball, not only because of the possibility of an NLCS rematch, but also because of bad feelings generated between New Yorkers and Braves reliever John Rocker since last October.

It is not, however, the only exciting race being played out in the National League. The San Francisco Giants again are proving that prudent front office decision-making and good on-field management can offset the profligate spending of wealthier opponents.

While the economically advantaged Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers struggle to stay in the NL West race, the Giants' Dusty Baker has enhanced his stature as one of baseball's best managers by steering his club out of a difficult April and into prime position for the division title.

The Giants don't hold a big lead -- they entered the weekend leading the Diamondbacks by three games. But they hold a clear scheduling advantage over Arizona and a relatively comfortable lead over the third-place Dodgers.

The majority of their remaining games (15 of 27) are at Pacific Bell Park, where they own the best home winning percentage of any major-league team going into the three-game series against the Chicago Cubs that began last night. The Diamondbacks have just 10 games remaining at home.

If that isn't enough of an advantage for the Giants, they are in the midst of a string of five straight series vs. soft clubs, four of them at least 15 games below .500. But Baker is quick to caution his team against taking anyone lightly.

"Those teams have nothing to lose," Baker told the Denver Post. "And also, a manager can be more aggressive and do things he wouldn't ordinarily do if they were in a pennant race. You have to probably expect the unexpected from teams that really don't have to answer for things if they were in a pennant race."

There is only one team in the National League in a position to breathe easily. The St. Louis Cardinals hold a commanding lead over the second-place Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central and don't seem likely to give it up.

No doubt, there was some midseason angst when home run king Mark McGwire was forced to the sidelines by an injury, but Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty pulled off the deal of the summer when he acquired veteran first baseman Will Clark from the Orioles.

Of course, it didn't seem like much. The New York Yankees had just acquired high-profile pitcher Denny Neagle. The Braves had picked up Ashby. And, the Diamondbacks acquired Curt Schilling in a trade some felt would cement their return to the playoffs. Instead, all three pitchers have been inconsistent, and Clark has emerged as a major force in the Cardinals' lineup.

He didn't do much during his 1 1/2 seasons in Baltimore but clearly has been re-energized by his return to the National League. Clark hit .394 with eight home runs, nine doubles and 18 RBIs in his first month with the Cardinals. He filled the void left by Big Mac and positioned the Cardinals for what should be a fairly uneventful drive toward the postseason.

"From the day he got here, he's been a big part of this team," teammate Ray Lankford said after Clark's two-homer performance on Wednesday. "Without him, with Mark out, there's no telling where we'd be. He's had what ... 20 RBIs? And they haven't been when we've been blown out. They've been at crunch time."

McGwire is expected back soon, which could create a dilemma for manager Tony La Russa, although Clark also gives the Cardinals solid bench strength for the playoffs.

The two-time defending world champion Yankees continue to hold their place at the top of the American League East, although the stretch run figures to be very interesting now that the second-place Boston Red Sox have upgraded their lineup for September.

The acquisition of big-swinging outfielder Dante Bichette from the Reds makes an explosive Red Sox lineup even more dangerous, provided Bichette doesn't suffer through the kind of adjustment period he went through his first month in Cincinnati.

The Yankees still have to be considered the favorite to hold off the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East race, but the deal also could have a dynamic impact on the AL wild-card race, where the Red Sox entered the weekend just behind the Cleveland Indians.

Though the Indians have not given up hope of overtaking the surprising Chicago White Sox in the AL Central, a wild-card berth seems far more realistic. To get there, the club will need more from $27 million pitching acquisition Chuck Finley.

Finley, at a mediocre 10-10 entering September, has been a major disappointment, making general manager John Hart hold out hope the veteran left-hander will finish with a flourish like he did last year.'This is not the Chuck Finley we expected to see," Hart said recently. "I know last year he struggled up until the All-Star break and then pitched tremendous. We're hopeful that will happen again."

The AL West may not be the most exciting division in baseball, but it has become one of the most contentious. The Seattle Mariners -- who were expected to languish without Ken Griffey -- have been on top of the division for much of the season, and they are no lock to stay there after a recent 3-14 slump that has tightened up the standings considerably.

The lack of a go-to starting pitcher has become a major problem and certainly will be a handicap if the Mariners reach the playoffs, but GM Pat Gillick deserves credit for upgrading the club enough to make it an issue.

If rotation cornerstones Jamie Moyer and Aaron Sele can turn it on for the final month of the season, the M's should be able to hold on. If not, they may have trouble holding off the Oakland Athletics and the Anaheim Angels, both teams within a good week of first place and both prominent in the crowded American League wild-card hunt.

The challenge for all three teams is just having a good week. None of the AL West contenders played particularly well in August, but -- if nothing else -- they can take solace that it isn't August anymore.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad