Stretch run of questions remains Small-market teams, Angels spice mix, but even O's need some answers

September 03, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The playoff picture is much clearer now. The Orioles are all but assured a place in this year's postseason tournament. So are the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees and, apparently, even the never-been-close Florida Marlins. But a lot can happen in September.

The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers thought they had it all wrapped up and everyone knows what happened to them. The 1995 California Angels folded so badly in September that they only now are returning to respectability.

No such doomsday scenario seems likely in 1997, but there still are some pressing questions waiting to be answered as baseball heads into the final month of regular-season play:

Will the Orioles hold off the Yankees and win their first American League East title since 1983? And, more importantly, will they be positioned to advance farther into the postseason than they did as the wild-card playoff entry last year?

Will the Angels redeem themselves for their 1995 collapse by outlasting the heavily favored Seattle Mariners in the American League West?

Can the small-market Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates prove that money isn't everything?

The Orioles do not appear to be in serious danger of ceding the top spot in the AL East, but the next two weeks will be the most intensely competitive stretch of their season. They are in Florida for an interleague series against the Marlins, who boast the third-best record in the majors, and soon will begin an 11-day stretch that includes eight head-to-head matchups against the rival Yankees, No. 4 overall.

Forget all that talk about the AL wild-card team getting the better draw in the postseason. The Orioles have a score to settle with the Yankees and will be trying to blow them clean out of the AL East race.

The challenge doesn't end there. The Orioles also play six games against the Indians -- including four in two days at Camden Yards -- before they settle into a relatively light competitive schedule for the remainder of the regular season. Their biggest opponent over the final two weeks of play will be fatigue, because the back-to-back doubleheaders against the Indians force them to play 20 games over the last 18 days.

The past week has been a struggle, but the Orioles appear to be positioned well for the final sprint. The pitching staff has not been overworked, and the September roster expansion gives manager Davey Johnson added flexibility and offensive potential for the final four weeks of the regular season.

"We'll see down the stretch," Orioles pitcher Jimmy Key said. "We're the best team in baseball record-wise. I think the team is looking forward to September to see what we can do.

"This is what everybody has been playing for. Hopefully, we can keep doing what we've been doing the past five months."

Some teams will have to do more. The Angels, for example, have surprised everyone by staying in the hunt in the AL West. They have remained a viable contender despite a series of injuries that has kept the pitching staff below full strength all season, but they still have some work to do to outdistance the better-stocked Mariners.

That race -- and several others -- will not be affected significantly by head-to-head play. The Angels and Mariners play each other just twice the rest of the way, at the Kingdome in the final week of the regular season.

The AL West race will come down to which club plays better against the worst teams in the American League. Other than the brief head-to-head series, neither the Mariners nor the Angels play another regular-season game against an American League team that is close to .500. The Mariners figure to have a decided advantage at the end, because they play seven of their last 10 games against the Oakland Athletics, while the Angels play seven of their last 10 against the more dangerous Texas Rangers.

The Brewers continue to hang tough in the AL Central, but they have no head-to-head games remaining with the first-place Indians, which could make it difficult to overtake them down the stretch.

Milwaukee does have a slightly softer September schedule than the Indians -- who have to play three doubleheaders -- but the Brewers need to take advantage of that before the final weekend, when they play the Orioles and the Indians finish against the less-formidable Minnesota Twins.

Every National League race remains in doubt, but the postseason possibilities seem heavily weighted toward the NL East -- just as they are toward the AL East.

The Braves entered September with a 4 1/2 -game lead over the second-place Marlins, but the Braves -- by virtue of a 10 1/2 -game advantage over the best second-place team outside of their division -- appear to have a playoff berth locked up. The Marlins also are in a comfortable position, with the second-best record in the league and a six-game lead in the wild-card standings.

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