Down the stretch: Race: The wild-card berth has kept more AL teams in the chase and turned the season's final month into more than divisional chases.

September 06, 1996|By PETER SCHMUCK | PETER SCHMUCK,SUN STAFF

Texas Rangers manager Johnny Oates was at a loss for words Monday night. He locked the door to his office and chose to keep his frustration to himself after his club fumbled away a game to the Minnesota Twins.

The next night, Seattle manager Lou Piniella lost his cool and threatened the underachieving members of his pitching staff with unemployment after the Mariners' bullpen nearly blew a seven-run lead in the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox.

It's that time of year. The suspense is beginning to build all around the American League as time begins to run short for the seven teams still in reasonable contention for the four AL playoff berths.

Oates probably doesn't have anything to worry about. The Rangers have lost seven of their past 11 games, but hold a six-game lead in the AL West and need only tread water to hold off the Mariners and reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Cleveland Indians appear to be a sure thing, too, if general manager John Hart suddenly doesn't decide to trade Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Kenny Lofton to the New York Mets.

Then it gets interesting. The American League East -- the only AL race that looked like a runaway at the All-Star break -- now is the only AL race that looks like it might come down to the wire. The Orioles and New York Yankees are four games apart with one last head-to-head series looming less than two weeks off at Yankee Stadium.

Thanks to the two-year-old expanded playoff format, the Orioles have a fallback position. They are one of four divisional challengers who are in solid contention for the wild-card playoff berth, but their tremendous late-season rally has allowed them to refocus on their original goal -- an AL East title that seemed to be all but an impossible dream just a month or so ago.

Don't bet on it. The Yankees' free fall ended 10 days ago, and the Orioles have been frozen four games out of first place since then. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner may be in a panic, but his team has all of the indicators pointing in the right direction as it heads into the final three weeks of play.

Pitching ace David Cone returned to the starting rotation this week and pitched seven hitless innings in his first start since undergoing surgery to remove an aneurysm from his right arm. Closer John Wetteland is close to returning from a groin injury. The pitching staff should be back at full strength by the time the Orioles visit New York for that make-or-break series Sept. 17-19.

The Orioles appear to have the softer schedule the rest of the way, but that might benefit them more in the wild-card race, since the Yankees close out the season with seven of their last nine games against the resurgent Boston Red Sox, who are more of a threat to edge the Orioles out of the wild-card spot than to come all the way back from a 6-19 start to win the division title.

The stretch run used to be so simple. The teams that were on top tried to hold off the teams that were close enough to catch them, and the teams that were close enough to make a run at the top only had to worry about the division leaders. Now, the Orioles have to look over their shoulders at the Red Sox and out of the corner of each eye at the Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox.

The wild-card derby has turned September into a very complicated month, but it is the salvation of a team such as the White Sox, who stayed close for a while in the American League Central but never were expected to keep the first-place Indians from repeating as division champion.

None of the wild-card contenders has been eliminated mathematically from title consideration, but the White Sox already have to be focused on staying ahead of the Orioles and Mariners -- and maybe even the Red Sox. Chicago has only one series remaining against the Indians. It might be different if they had seven head-to-head games left, as the Red Sox have against the Yankees, but the White Sox have only three left with the Indians and face one of the toughest late-season schedules of any AL contender.

Beginning tonight, they play 12 straight games against the Red Sox, Orioles and Indians, before closing out the season with six of their final eight games against the surprisingly pesky Minnesota Twins. By comparison, the Indians have only two series remaining against teams that are currently above .500 and one late-season series against the .500 Twins.

The Mariners still hold out hope of catching the Rangers, and why not? They made a miracle comeback a year ago to earn their first AL West title, so the six-game lead held by the Rangers doesn't look as daunting as it really is. But the Mariners face the likely prospect of losing ground this weekend when they play three games against the Indians while the Rangers face the less-formidable Milwaukee Brewers, then get little advantage from the schedule the rest of the way.

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