Mets' fate to be decided right on schedule

On Baseball

August 29, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The 1999 season is heading into its final month, and it's time for a startling prediction about the National League playoff picture.

The Mets are out.

That's right. The New York Mets, who entered Friday night's games with the second-best record in the league, are going to be watching the playoffs on television -- if they can stand to watch.

The Atlanta Braves are going to hold on to win the East, in spite of some recent injury problems. The Arizona Diamondbacks already have the West locked up. And the Central will dispatch the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds to the postseason.

How do we know this?

Through the crude art of schedule analysis.

The Mets, quite simply, have the toughest schedule the rest of the way, and it will get even tougher during the season's final two weeks.

They hold a three-game lead over the Reds in the wild-card race, but they play a September schedule fat with winning teams. The Reds will have a cakewalk by comparison and -- if they manage to win the tight Central outright -- the Astros' stretch run doesn't look particularly challenging either.

The Mets play 19 of their last 31 games against teams that entered Friday night's games at least eight games over .500, including 12 straight in late September, six of which are against the Braves.

The Reds have eight games left against winning clubs and only two of those are in the last three weeks of the regular season. If they can survive a six-game stretch this week against the Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, it looks like smooth sailing the rest of the way.

The Reds' home/road split weighs heavily toward the road, but even that seems to work in their favor, since they have the best road record in the major leagues -- much better than their home mark.

The NL Central title is well within reach of the upstart Reds, but the Astros play just 12 of their 31 remaining games against winning clubs.

Either way, the Astros are in a position to help both themselves and their chief division rival when they play host to the Mets for a three-game series that begins tomorrow night at the Astrodome.

Barring a dramatic late-season surge by the Phillies or San Francisco Giants, the concurrent showdowns between the Mets and Astros and the Braves and Reds will be the last National League series featuring potential wild-card rivals.

That's too bad, but there could be several dramatic showdowns with division title implications during the final two weeks of the season. The Braves and Mets play six times in a 10-day stretch from Sept. 21-30 and the Reds have a quick two-game series against the Astros on Sept. 28-29 in Houston.

And, in the other league

The American League wild-card race is too close to call, but one thing seems certain. The Toronto Blue Jays will have to put on quite a show during the final two weeks of the season to reach the playoffs.

The Jays draw the toughest late September schedule -- by far. They go head-to-head with the Boston Red Sox in a three-game series Sept. 21-23, then play seven of their remaining nine games against the Cleveland Indians.

If they don't surge into the lead in the wild-card derby during the next couple of weeks, they should be home in time to watch the leaves change.

Big question

Of course, the outcome of the NL East race could hinge on the ability of Braves ace Greg Maddux to pitch with a bone chip in his wrist.

Maddux, who skipped a start this weekend to allow the soreness to abate, is scheduled to return to the mound Tuesday night in Cincinnati. The Braves are hopeful he will be able to pitch through the pain and finish the season, but some time off in September is far from out of the question.

Manager Bobby Cox spent part of last week weighing his options in case Maddux cannot continue.

"It could be a huge factor if he's out for the year," Cox said. "I can give him nine days off without disturbing the rotation and we could go the rest of the year with four [starters] if we have to. If not, we still have [rookie Bruce] Chen, too."

If Maddux is lost for an extended period, it would improve the playoff outlook for the Mets considerably, especially in the wake of the season-ending injury to solid middle reliever Rudy Seanez.

Another empty threat?

Major-league umpires are hinting that they'll go on strike this week to show support for the umpires who are going to lose their jobs when their resignations become effective Thursday.

It's probably an empty threat. The umpires cannot legally go on strike while they are still under the terms of an existing collective bargaining agreement. That's why they chose instead to announce mass resignations -- playing into the hands of a management clique intent on regaining control over the renegade umpires union.

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