A's may not be able to crash party this year



For the first five years in baseball's wild-card era, it was almost a foregone conclusion: The American League East would send two teams to the playoffs, and the league's other two divisions would send one each.

That changed two years ago when the Oakland Athletics emerged as a renewed power, advancing to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons along with their AL West partners in Seattle.

But the East looks like the playoff beast again this year, with the Boston Red Sox leading the division and the Yankees holding the wild-card lead after the season's first quarter.

The A's spent some time this past week in the AL West cellar, which raised the eyebrows of some Orioles as they glanced at the standings, looking ahead to Tuesday's start of a three-game series in Oakland.

Everyone in baseball expects the A's to catch fire again - they were 18-22 at this point a year ago and still won 102 games - but several factors are working against their playoff chances this year.

Their lineup is weaker, with Jason Giambi now with the Yankees and leadoff hitter Johnny Damon now with the Red Sox. And their competition appears stronger. With the Angels currently the hottest team in baseball and the Rangers approaching .500, there are no easy games in the four-team AL West.

Meanwhile, over in the AL East, the Orioles, Toronto, and Tampa Bay entered the weekend a combined 30 games under .500. With an unbalanced schedule, the A's get to play 27 games against those teams, while the Red Sox and Yankees get 57 and 56 cracks, respectively.

So, for everyone looking forward to another potentially terrific race between Beantown and the Bronx, this can only diminish the anticipation. The Yankees and Red Sox will play a four-game series at Fenway Park this weekend, but so what?

Eventually, it might only decide which team gets home-field advantage during the playoffs.

Still a great matchup

In their first week without Manny Ramirez, who is out with a broken finger, the Red Sox maintained the best record in baseball. Pedro Ramirez pitched eight outstanding innings against the Seattle Mariners on national TV, and Derek Lowe continued his brilliance.

In Wednesday's 8-2 victory over Oakland, Lowe recorded 21 of his 24 outs on ground balls or strikeouts. For the season, Lowe has recorded 77 percent (135 of 175) of his outs via ground balls and strikeouts, and opponents are batting .167 against him.

A rival American League executive said he thinks the Yankees will eventually prevail over the Red Sox again because their pitching is better and deeper. David Wells looks back to his old self at 6-1. In fact, at 40-15, he has the best winning percentage (.727) of any Yankees pitcher with at least 50 starts.

Around the division

Toronto entered the weekend 13-25, but 29 of those games came against Boston, New York, Minnesota, Anaheim, Seattle and Oakland. ... Tampa Bay's concentration on youth can be summed up at catcher, where veteran John Flaherty sits on the bench with a .296 average and $3 million salary, while Toby Hall gets most of the starts, batting .189 in his second season. "Toby's going to catch five days a week for a while," Devil Rays manager Hal McRae told reporters last Sunday. "John deserves to play, but Toby's the guy."

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