Looks like October: Mariners, A's in playoff preview

ON BASEBALL

September 30, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics are hooked up in a three-game series at Safeco Field this weekend that - from all statistical appearances - means very little to the American League playoff picture.

The M's are in. They've been a lock to reach the postseason since about May 1 and look like a pretty good bet to break the American League record for regular-season victories.

The A's are in, too. They locked up the American League wild-card berth so early they almost defeated its purpose, and now appear certain to win more games than any other major-league team except the Mariners.

If anyone had told you in February that the Mariners and A's would combine to win about 215 games this year, you would have been within your rights to insist on a psychological evaluation, but they have emerged as the best two teams in baseball. Which is why this weekend series in Seattle is not meaningless at all.

It would be more fun if the AL West title were on the line, but it's very relevant to the postseason. The M's should be heavily favored to beat the Cleveland Indians in their Division Series and will have the home-field advantage for the first two rounds of playoffs. The A's face a taller order in the opening round against the defending champion New York Yankees, but they were not intimidated in the same situation last year.

There's a pretty good chance that this weekend's showdown is a preview of the American League Championship Series, and there's a very good chance that the winner of that ALCS will go on to win the world title.

Nobody should be surprised if it turns out to be the A's, who have proved over the past few weeks that they have the focus and maturity to meet the challenge of the grueling, three-tiered playoff format - even at a home-field disadvantage in all three series.

It would have been easy to let down after the Mariners knocked them out of the division race in the early months of the season. It also would have been easy to slack off once it became apparent that they would not face a serious challenge for the wild-card berth. Instead, they bore down even harder and will head into the final week of the regular season as the hottest team in baseball.

They came into the weekend with seven straight victories and 22 in their past 24 games.

The Mariners haven't let down, either, but they have the added burden of needing to win three playoff rounds just to validate their amazing regular season. Who knows how that will play?

The head-to-head weekend series provided an opportunity for both teams to gain a mental edge, and for their fans to get worked up for the possible showdown ahead.

Powerful moment

Before Tuesday's game in Philadelphia, Ken Griffey was forwarded an e-mail from Katrina Marino of Monroe, N.Y., that included a heart-wrenching request.

The e-mail read: "My husband, Kenny Marino, a Rescue 1 firefighter, is missing. Ken Griffey Jr. was his favorite player. ... If Ken Griffey Jr. could hit an extra home run for Kenny, I know he will be looking down with a big smile."

Of course, Griffey came through for his heroic missing fan, hitting a home run in the fourth inning that touched off a wave of personal emotion about the horrific events of Sept. 11.

"I'm just glad I got a chance to do something to make him smile," said Griffey, who also said that he would send the bat to the Marino family and meet with them the next time the Cincinnati Reds visit New York.

Still sour

The Dodgers and Giants have long carried on one of baseball's most bitter rivalries, and it didn't get any sweeter when the Dodgers refused in advance to allow any organized on-field recognition of Barry Bonds in the event he broke the single-season home run record in Los Angeles.

It soon became academic, since Bonds hit only one home run in the series, but any unpleasantness between the historic rivals is newsworthy. These are the teams that brought you the "Shot heard 'round the world" and the famous Juan Marichal-John Roseboro bat brawl. This time, however, the battle was decided in the boardroom.

"Major League Baseball asked us to consider the idea of having a post-game on-field celebration, to which we have refused," said Dodgers senior vice president Derrick Hall. "We will not allow the game to be stopped, or have a ceremony on the field. We're in the middle of a pennant race, and the Giants are one of the teams we are battling. We would not recognize one of their players during that stretch run. We don't believe our fans want to sit through a ceremony for the Giants in Dodger Stadium."

The Giants should find the final days of the home run derby more hospitable. The Houston Astros have approved a ceremony at Enron Field if Bonds breaks the record there during the upcoming series, and the final regular-season series of the year is in San Francisco.

Worst stretch deal

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