The San Diego Padres have taken the National League West race to the limit. They needed a three-game road sweep to overtake the Los Angeles Dodgers and win their first division title since 1984, and they are one game away.
Tony Gwynn's bases-loaded single in the eighth inning yesterday broke a 2-2 tie and propelled the Padres to a 4-2 victory that set up today's championship showdown at Dodger Stadium.
The victory guaranteed that both teams will make the playoffs, which might figure to remove some of the urgency from today's matchup, but the game still will have a significant impact on the playoffs. The team that wins won't have to play the heavily favored Atlanta Braves in the divisional series, facing the St. Louis Cardinals instead.
Dodgers manager Bill Russell will send 15-game winner Ramon Martinez to the mound today, which would appear to give Los Angeles an advantage over the Padres and struggling veteran Bob Tewksbury. The Dodgers have the luxury of going with one of baseball's premier starters because they can open the playoffs with two other pitchers -- Hideo Nomo and Ismael Valdes -- who have numbers similar to those of Martinez.
No matter what happens today, it will be a fitting end to an intense pennant race. The Padres led much of the way, but never by more than 2 1/2 games. The Dodgers appeared to take control when San Diego was swept in a two-game midweek series by Colorado, but the Padres scored a tense victory Friday night and followed it up with another yesterday afternoon to tie for the division lead.
"Coming into this year, I felt like we were going to be pretty good," Gwynn said. "I felt like we were going to have a chance to win the division. Still, to see the way it's all come together, and how guys have sacrificed and put the team in front of everything, I'm not surprised we're in the position we're in right now."
The Texas Rangers invited their fans to stay after Friday night's game to watch the Seattle-Oakland game on the video scoreboard if the Rangers failed to clinch the American League West title with a victory over California. The Rangers did lose, 4-3, but the game went 15 innings and a late-night watch wasn't necessary.
The Mariners and A's started an hour after the Rangers, but Seattle was eliminated while the Rangers and Angels were in the 13th inning. The Rangers returned to the clubhouse and a shower of champagne that was 25 years in the making.
"We're the best in the West," said general manager Doug Melvin, who left the Orioles two years ago to join the Rangers organization. "This team showed a lot of heart all year. We got a big, old, 25-year-old monkey off our back."
The Rangers now get a chance to prove that their in-season success against the rest of the AL playoff teams was no fluke. They travel to New York to open the divisional series against the Yankees, a team they went 7-5 against this year. If they get to the AL Championship Series, they are guaranteed an opponent that could not compete with them in the regular season.
Both the Orioles and the Cleveland Indians were 3-10 in their season series against Texas, though the significance of regular-season records is debatable.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were 11-1 against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983, for example, but were beaten decisively in the NL Championship Series.
There remains room to debate whether the best-of-five divisional format truly gives the home-field advantage to the right team. The Rangers go to New York for the first two games and likely will face David Cone and Andy Pettitte, leaving open the possibility that they will return to Arlington needing to win three straight to advance to the ALCS.
Now, there's no real injustice there, because both teams are division titlists and the Yankees -- by virtue of the better overall record -- actually deserve the home-field edge, but the system seems unfair to the division winner that draws the wild-card team.
If a wild-card team has two unstoppable pitchers, the division winner is at a definite disadvantage in the two-on-the-road, three-at-home format. Wouldn't it be better to go with a 2-2-1 system in which the team playing the wild card opens with two at home and gets the decisive fifth game in its own ballpark?
Ideally, that would require an extra day off, but the fourth game could be played in the afternoon to allow for travel time.
Pub Date: 9/29/96