Playoff path looks smooth for surging Red Sox

Easier schedule favors Boston over Anaheim

NL race bunched up

September 02, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

For Boston Red Sox fans, it's hard to imagine waking up on Sept. 1 feeling any better than they did yesterday, with their team playing its best baseball of the season and the New York Yankees smarting from a 22-0 loss.

Of course, New Englanders being New Englanders, the giddy sentiment probably came and went. By noon, they were probably back to wondering how these Red Sox were going to break their hearts.

Maybe they should relax.

One look at the wild-card standings, one look at the schedule and one look at history tells us the Red Sox should be headed to the postseason again, regardless of what happens to the Yankees down the stretch.

Boston leads the Anaheim Angels by 3 1/2 games in the wild-card race. Since the wild-card format was adopted in 1995, no team has ever faced a 2 1/2 -game deficit in the wild-card standings on Sept. 1 and come back to make the playoffs.

And in this case, the Angels will play 17 of their final 30 games against teams that entered yesterday with a winning record, while Boston plays just 13 of its final 31 games against such teams.

"Our objective is to win our division," Angels general manager Bill Stoneman said. "That's really all we're focused on. You play as well as you can and you're going to be fine. We did that a couple of years ago, when Oakland won 20 straight at one point, and made out pretty well."

The 2002 Angels won the wild-card berth and defeated the San Francisco Giants, another wild-card team, in the World Series. Last year, another wild-card team won it all, as the Florida Marlins upstaged the Yankees.

So considering the way the wild-card teams have fared the past two postseasons, there's plenty at stake over the next month. There are five teams within three games of the NL wild-card lead and three teams within five games of the AL wild-card lead.

"It's tough to scoreboard-watch with the wild card," said San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers. "You get vertigo, going back and forth from game to game."

For now, it looks like St. Louis, Atlanta and Minnesota have pretty firm grips on their respective division titles. But there are 11 other contenders to watch this month, and here's a closer look:

American League

Anaheim Angels: How they do in Boston this week will go a long way toward determining their chances, and Tuesday's 10-7 loss was pretty deflating. But even with a tough schedule, the Angels are getting healthier, with Troy Glaus back in the lineup.

Oakland Athletics: The A's have a three-game lead on the Angels in the AL West, and if they can hold off Anaheim, they should be fine. Those two teams have six more games, including three the final weekend in Oakland.

Boston Red Sox: After beating up on Tampa Bay, Detroit, Chicago and Toronto, the Red Sox began a tough nine-game stretch against Anaheim, Texas and Oakland this week. If the Red Sox can survive that, they should be home free.

Texas Rangers: It's amazing they've hung around this long with their tattered starting pitching staff, but they have the toughest schedule of anyone on this list, with 18 of their final 31 games coming against teams with winning records.

New York Yankees: For all their weaknesses, especially at starting pitching, the Yankees catch a break with their schedule. They play just nine of their final 30 games against teams with winning records. And even if the Red Sox catch them in the East, the Yankees still have a seven-game lead over the Angels in the wild-card race.

National League

Chicago Cubs: Even with Mark Prior looking nowhere near as dominating as he did last season, no one wants to face the Cubs' starting pitching in the postseason. With just nine of their final 29 games against teams with winning records, they have the easiest path to the wild card.

San Francisco Giants: After playing 12 more games against Colorado, Arizona and Milwaukee, the Giants finish with 15 games against San Diego, Houston and Los Angeles. If the Giants fade behind the Cubs, their best hope would be catching the Dodgers in the NL West.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Even with the Dodgers holding a 5 1/2 -game lead over the Giants, they hardly seemed a lock to win the division. With Brad Penny injured, the starting rotation includes Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver, Jose Lima and Wilson Alvarez. The Giants close the season with a three-game series at Dodger Stadium, where they've spoiled parties before.

San Diego Padres: The schedule just looks too tough, with four more against the Cardinals, seven against the Dodgers and six against the Giants. The Padres are 38-28 on the road, compared with 33-33 at brand-new Petco Park. They finish with 15 at home and 15 on the road.

Florida Marlins: If the NL West teams keep beating up on each other, the Marlins could sneak in the back door with a much more favorable schedule. They play just 12 of their final 31 games against clubs with winning records, and control their destiny with six games against the Cubs.

Houston Astros: The Marlins and Astros have made things interesting, fighting their way back into the race. "Two weeks ago, nobody was talking about those teams," Towers said. Like the Cubs, the Astros have a very favorable schedule, with just nine games remaining against teams with winning records, but the road could be too steep.

Wild-card standings

American League

Team W L Pct. GB

Boston 78 53 .595 -

Anaheim 75 57 .568 3 1/2

Texas 73 58 .557 5

National League

Team W L Pct. GB

Chicago 73 60 .549 -

San Fran. 73 62 .541 1

San Diego 71 61 .538 1 1/2

Florida 69 62 .527 3

Houston 70 63 .526 3

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