Playoffs approach four-gone conclusion First-round series all could end tonight

October 06, 1995|By PETER SCHMUCK | PETER SCHMUCK,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- Major-league owners have worked hard the past couple of years to bring about two major changes in the presentation of their sport. They wanted to make individual games shorter and the playoff format longer.

Somebody must have gotten that mixed up this week. The divisional round of the 1995 playoffs has produced two of the longest games in postseason history and all four of the best-of-five series are in danger of ending in three games.

The Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds both swept two games on the road to put their opponents in the unenviable -- and seemingly impossible -- position of having to sweep three on the road to advance to the National League Championship Series. ** No team did that in the 16 years that the LCS was played in a five-game format.

The Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees swept at home and each needs just one road victory in three tries to set up a pennant showdown between the winningest team in major-league baseball and the American League's first wild card.

The champagne will be iced up in all four stadiums when the divisional playoffs resume tonight at 8:05, but no one in Seattle is expecting the Mariners to go down in three straight games.

Manager Lou Piniella will send left-hander Randy Johnson to the mound tonight at the Kingdome, where a sellout crowd will be cheering every 99-mph pitch and the 6-foot-10 left-hander will be looking to duplicate the intimidating performance he delivered Monday in the one-game AL West playoff.

Of course, this time will be different. Seattle isn't in a position to send the Yankees home empty-handed. The Mariners lost two exciting games at Yankee Stadium, so all Johnson can do is keep their hopes alive for one more day by out-dueling Yankees right-hander Jack McDowell.

"He'll be ready to pitch," Piniella said. "Monday, he was pitching for something that this organization had never accomplished. I can't say whether he'll be that high tomorrow night, but he'll be ready to pitch. He'll be prepared. He'll do a good job for us."

The odds are on his side, even though he'll be pitching on three days' rest for the second time in a row. Johnson has dominated AL hitters all year -- short rest and not -- and has an 18-2 record to prove that he is all but unbeatable.

If he is as sharp as he was Monday, the ball would go to veteran Chris Bosio (10-8) tomorrow night and stretch-run acquisition Andy Benes (7-2 since joining the Mariners) if there is a decisive fifth game.

If there isn't, there will be a lot of talk about the way the one-game playoff diluted the Mariners' chances of getting to the ALCS. If Johnson had not pitched Monday, Piniella was set to use him twice.

"It would have helped us, sure," Piniella said. "You always want to use your ace as much as you can.

But we have nothing to be displeased about. We won a title in Seattle for the first time in 19 years and we were happy to have Randy going for us in that game Monday. We've got nothing to gripe about."

They certainly are not alone in this sudden-death situation. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield faces a must-win start for the Boston Red Sox against an Indians team that appears to be unstoppable, and he'll go to the mound carrying the collective anxiety of a city that has not won a World Series since Babe Ruth was a Red Sox pitcher.

The two National League series may seem open and shut, but they are not without their own compelling story lines. Dodgers rookie pitching sensation Hideo Nomo will make his American postseason debut in Cincinnati tonight, hoping to stave off elimination and add another impressive chapter to his amazing 1995 season. He may not be as overpowering as Johnson, but he led the NL with 236 strikeouts and he pitched well against the Reds in one previous appearance.

The Colorado Rockies may be a third-year expansion club and the first NL wild card, but they were competitive in the first two games of the series against the Braves. They don't figure to turn the series around -- if only because Greg Maddux would pitch Game 4 -- but they could make it more interesting if they get a few big swings against Braves starter John Smoltz.

AL playoffs

Red Sox vs. Indians

Series: Indians lead 2-0

Game 3: Tonight, 8:07, Fenway Park, Boston, chs. 2, 7

Starters: Indians' Charles Nagy (16-6, 4.55) vs. Red Sox's Tim Wakefield (16-8, 2.95)

Mariners vs. Yankees

Series: Yankees lead 2-0

Game 3: Tonight, 8:07, Kingdome, Seattle

Starters: Yankees' Jack McDowell (15-10, 3.93) vs. Mariners' Randy Johnson (18-2, 2.48)

NL playoffs

Braves vs. Rockies

Series: Braves lead 2-0

Game 3: Tonight, 8:07, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium

Starters: Rockies' Bill Swift (9-3, 4.94) vs. Braves' John Smoltz (12-7, 3.18)

Reds vs. Dodgers

Series: Reds lead 2-0

Game 2: Tonight, 8:07, Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati

Starters: Dodgers' Hideo Nomo (13-6, 2.54) vs. Reds' David Wells (6-5, 3.59)

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