As always, Yankees are team to beat

ON BASEBALL

September 29, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

The Oakland Athletics ran off a 20-game winning streak and won baseball's toughest division.

The Anaheim Angels stayed right with them down the stretch and earned their first postseason berth in 16 years.

The St. Louis Cardinals are a compelling team with a compelling tale, as are the defending World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks, the uncontractable Minnesota Twins and regular-as-clockwork Atlanta Braves.

But it always seems to come down to the Yankees. The bell is about to ring and they again must be considered the team to beat in this year's three-tiered postseason tournament.

They've got the pitching. They've got plenty of pop. They still have that aura that the Diamondbacks punctured - but did not peel away - during last year's World Series. They can be beaten, but you've still got to beat them.

What are the odds? Leave that to Vegas.

Here, instead, is a thumbnail look at the eight postseason teams and how they figure to fare in October:

Yankees: In an era when most teams don't have three quality starting pitchers, Yankees manager Joe Torre has six, two of whom - probably Orlando Hernandez and Jeff Weaver - will start the postseason in the bullpen.

Hernandez is one of the most successful postseason pitchers in baseball history and Weaver likely would fit into the postseason rotations of several other playoff teams. The only pitching question is the physical condition of perennial playoff hero and closer Mariano Rivera, who is just back from a shoulder strain.

The emergence of leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano as a big-time power threat adds a dimension to the Yankees' offense that is going to give opposing pitchers fits through the postseason. And there's no one like fellow Most Valuable Player candidate Jason Giambi to knock a shaky pitcher around the ballpark.

Cardinals: The Cardinals have to be the sentimental favorite and are playing very well, surging down the stretch to challenge the Diamondbacks for home-field advantage in the Division Series.

They just swept the D'backs in a three-game series at Busch Stadium and appear to have a big edge offensively in the first round. Likely Game 1 starter Matt Morris looked sharp in his final regular-season start against the Milwaukee Brewers, but the Cardinals may only have the third-best starting rotation of the four National League playoff teams.

Still, they look like the best NL bet to reach the World Series.

Athletics: The 20-game winning streak established the A's as the most dynamic team in either league, but they still have to prove they can carry that winning chemistry into the postseason.

The nucleus of the starting rotation - Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito - might be the best around. The batting order weathered the offseason loss of All-Stars Johnny Damon and Giambi, thanks largely to an MVP-caliber performance by shortstop Miguel Tejada. The A's recovered from a horrible start to win baseball's toughest division with a magical stretch drive.

This team should go all the way, but everyone was saying the same thing last year before the Yankees snatched the AL pennant away from them.

Diamondbacks: It might be tempting to write off the D'backs after the shoulder injury that put offensive cornerstone Luis Gonzalez on the shelf for the entire postseason, but it also might be a mistake.

Don't misunderstand, the loss of Gonzalez is huge and the late-season slump that might cost them home-field advantage in the first round will make it even tougher to get out of the Division Series, but the ability of Cy Young candidates Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to give them a quick 2-0 lead in the Division Series with minimal offensive help is enough to keep them a very strong candidate to return to the World Series.

The Diamondbacks will find ways to score runs, but if the Cardinals can split the first two games of the best-of-five series, it's going to be very tough to advance. Even if they do, Johnson and Schilling may be stretched too thin to carry them through the NL Championship Series.

Braves: They come every year, but they have gone home with the World Series championship trophy just once (1995) in 10 postseason appearances since 1991.

Could this year be different? There are several reasons why it could, most notably the overpowering performance of playoff-seasoned veteran John Smoltz in the closer role. The Braves still have two of the best pitchers in the game in their starting rotation and plenty of power at the heart of the batting order.

Center fielder Andruw Jones has been the driving force in the offensive lineup, but Gary Sheffield will need to assert himself if Atlanta is to make a sustained run at the title. Right now, however, the Braves look more vulnerable than the Cardinals or D'backs.

Angels: The Angels have had an impressive season, entering the final weekend with the fourth-best record in baseball, but they don't look good enough on paper to upend both the Yankees and the winner of the other AL Division Series.

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