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With second look, plenty of suspense meets the eye

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The final week of the regular season doesn't figure to upstage the Olympics. Five of the six division winners have been obvious for weeks. Six of the eight postseason berths already are filled.

The American League West and the AL wild-card race are still in doubt, but it really just comes down to whether the Cleveland Indians or Oakland Athletics get the last ticket to October. Hardly reason to turn the channel and miss the fencing finals.

If you want classic suspense, rent a Hitchcock film ... unless you're one of those baseball fans who looks beyond the obvious.

There is more intrigue than meets the unpracticed eye. Most of the playoff berths have been filled, but the final games of the regular season could have a major impact on the postseason draw - and possibly the World Series matchup.

The San Francisco Giants, for instance, have the best record in baseball, but a bad final week could dramatically alter their postseason prospects. The sharp imbalance between their home and road records make it almost imperative that they maintain the best record in the National League and, with it, the home-field advantage through the first two playoff rounds.

The way it stacks up now, the Giants would open the playoffs against the wild-card New York Mets at Pacific Bell Park, but a hot finish by the St. Louis Cardinals could push the Giants into a Division Series matchup against the Atlanta Braves. That, and a hot finish by the Braves, could send the Giants to Atlanta to open the Division Series against the playoff-hardened Braves pitching staff.

The Giants have become all but unbeatable at Pacific Bell Park, where they lost seven of their first eight home games after the new stadium opened in April. Since then, they are 53-18 for an all-but-astounding .746 winning percentage.

That's why it's so important for them to finish strong and assure themselves of the home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Nothing they can do about the World Series, which starts in the American League city this year.

No doubt, the Cardinals feel the same way. They also have an outstanding home record (as do the Braves), but the final week will determine whether they grab the potentially softer wild-card opponent, hold home-field advantage against the Braves or open the playoffs in Atlanta.

The Giants have drawn the toughest assignment, finishing on the road against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks. But the postseason could be shaping up perfectly for San Francisco manager Dusty Baker, who could enhance his growing managerial resume with his first World Series.

The Braves also face a difficult final week, with a road series against the Mets and a season-ending home series against the unpredictable Colorado Rockies.

St. Louis probably has the lightest draw, with a road series against San Diego and a closeout series at home against the Cincinnati Reds, but they'll need to take full advantage to position themselves for a successful postseason.

Of course, there are similar considerations in the American League, but the home-field dichotomy is not nearly so pronounced. The New York Yankees have almost identical home and road records, and the other division leaders are surprisingly balanced, too.

The way it stacks up now, only the Chicago White Sox have a lock on the home-field advantage in the first round. The Yankees have slipped so badly the past week that they are in danger of being overtaken by the Seattle Mariners or the Oakland Athletics in the overall won-lost standings.

If the AL West winner can close strong, it will open at home against the Yankees or Indians, depending on the outcome of the wild-card race.

The White Sox, despite the best record in the league, have the most difficult scouting assignment right now, since they could face the Yankees, Mariners, A's or Toronto Blue Jays in the Division Series.

Playoff problems

The White Sox also have a chance - a very good chance - to go from having the best record in the American League to having the worst chance of advancing past the first round of the playoffs.

The starting rotation is down to Mike Sirotka, Jim Parque and whoever manager Jerry Manuel thinks can give him five solid innings in Game 3. Not a very happy thought for a team that ran away with the AL Central on the strength of its up-and-coming pitching staff.

Injuries have knocked down James Baldwin (14-5) and Cal Eldred (10-2), leaving Manuel to ponder rookies Jon Garland and Kip Wells and possibly converted reliever Sean Lowe. Baldwin isn't entirely out of the question, but he'll have to make a successful return to the rotation this week to warrant consideration for Game 3 of the Division Series.

The Sox probably will play the Mariners or the A's in the Division Series, both teams capable of pounding a struggling pitching staff.

More Dodgers controversy

Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone found himself in the middle of a hot controversy Wednesday when the Los Angeles Times reported that he had talked to former manager and current television analyst Kevin Kennedy about managing the team in 2001.

Malone denied the report, but that did nothing to quell speculation that manager Davey Johnson will be fired at the end of the year.

The club's inability to break into the postseason the past two years has damaged Johnson's reputation as a consistent winner and also may leave Malone on the hot seat when Dodgers managing partner Bob Daly weighs his front office options in the next few weeks.

The outspoken Malone certainly couldn't have felt very comfortable recently when Daly expressed dismay at the way some of the club's internal problems were finding their way onto the street.

"One of the things about the Dodgers, and you've got to give a lot of credit to the O'Malley family for this, is it was a totally professional organization," Daly said. "They did things in a professional way. Not everyone may have agreed with everything that was done ... but it was always done in a professional manner.

"It was done in the right way. If they had problems, they were aired behind closed doors, and what bothers me most is our dirty laundry is being aired out every day."

Stadium snafu

The Padres have announced that they will suspend construction of their new stadium Oct. 2 because of problems encountered by the city of San Diego selling the $299 million in tax-exempt bonds that will provide the city's share of the construction costs.

The project has survived several attempts by local opposition groups to block it, but nonstop litigation has made it difficult for the city to issue the bonds - even though the fringe groups fighting against the new stadium are 0-for-13 in court so far.

"Right now, we don't see any immediate cash infusion," Padres president Larry Lucchino said at a construction-site news conference Tuesday. "This is a decision we came to very agonizingly. We are not eager to stop the momentum of this project."

City officials, however, insist that an Oct. 2 construction shutdown is unlikely.

"I don't know if Larry's having a breakdown or what," city councilwoman Christine Kehoe told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "We are nowhere near OK'ing or agreeing to a work shutdown."

Lucchino isn't having a breakdown, but he's probably pining for the good old days, when all you had to do was print a few hundred million scratch-off lottery tickets and - voila! - you had the best stadium in baseball.

Will he or won't he?

Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez may be warming to the idea of staying in Seattle.

Everyone assumes that he'll go to the highest bidder when he becomes eligible for free agency at the end of the season, but he insists that the Mariners still are high on his list.

"People have me written in as the next Dodgers shortstop, as the next Mets shortstop," Rodriguez said last week. "They can say what they want. They can write what they want. What I'll tell you now is that I still consider Seattle No. 1. If I really was dead set against returning, I would have done what Griff [Ken Griffey] did and just come out and say it. But I don't feel that way.

"If Pat [Gillick] and Howard [Lincoln, team CEO] do what they should do, there's a good chance I'll stay here."

Of course, that's only Rodriguez speaking. His agent, Scott Boras, has a habit of steering his players to the highest bidder, something the Mariners aren't in a position to be.

Twins intrigue

For the first time since he led the Minnesota Twins to an unlikely world title in 1987, Tom Kelly can't be sure he'll be the club's manager next year.

The club's new CEO, Chris Clouser, apparently is pushing for changes in the club's management structure, which could mean the dismissal of general manager Terry Ryan and even Kelly.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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