Crowded Field

Baseball: The final week shapes up as a fan's delight, with the wackiness of three tight races, plus a chase after an 84-year-old record.

The Playoff Races

September 28, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

If the Chicago Cubs survive the four-team scrum for the National League wild-card berth this week, a plastic deer with a child-sized Kyle Farnsworth jersey could find itself resting beside Steve Bartman and Harry Caray in franchise lore.

The Cubs added the plastic deer to their traveling party, adorning him with the Farnsworth jersey, and wound up finishing 8-4 on their latest road trip. Who knows? Maybe they've found the answer to the Curse of the Billy Goat.

This late in the season, teams will look to anything for a psychological edge. It's a crazy time, and the players have gotten punchy (sorry, Kevin Brown). After 25 weeks, baseball has several compelling plot lines that will build to a climax by Sunday.

"If you're a baseball fan, you've got to be loving this," said ESPN analyst Tony Gwynn. "Even if your team isn't in it, you've got races all around the country. All I know is whoever comes out of these, October's going to be fun."

Three races have come down to the wire, with the Anaheim Angels chasing the Oakland Athletics, the Los Angeles Dodgers trying to hold off the San Francisco Giants, and the Cubs trying to hold off three teams for the wild card.

Of course, in these parts, there's a serious backdrop to all these stories. This could very well be the week baseball's landscape is forever changed, as the commissioner's office prepares to announce Washington as its pick for the new home of the Montreal Expos.

So there's drama for the Orioles and other teams that aren't even in the playoff hunt.

In Seattle, the last-place Mariners are watching Ichiro Suzuki chase George Sisler's 84-year-old single-season hits record. Suzuki needs five to match Sisler's mark of 257.

"I'm watching that more than I am the pennant race," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said.

In Anaheim, the Angels just saw their management make a bold move, right out of a high school football coach's rule book. They suspended Jose Guillen for the rest of the season for disciplinary reasons, even though the rifle-armed outfielder hit 27 home runs and drove in 104 runs this season.

Guillen, who has played for seven teams in the past eight seasons, apparently had a series of indiscretions, and the final straw came Saturday, when he overreacted to being pulled for a pinch runner by manager Mike Scioscia. Guillen raised his arms in disgust at first base, then continued to pout all the way into the dugout, leaving his helmet childishly in front of Scioscia and slamming his glove in frustration.

The Angels will miss Guillen's bat, but they learned the importance of team chemistry when they won the World Series as underdogs in 2002, and Scioscia wasn't about to let one player spoil it this year.

"It's a tough situation," Scioscia told reporters. "I didn't sleep at all [Saturday] night thinking about it. But we needed to do something. Anything that is a distraction to us winning, you have to put it aside. Jose understood a line was crossed, and we'll leave it at that."

The New York Yankees also have a serious issue on their hands (more apologies to Brown). But he's the one causing manager Joe Torre to lose sleep at night, as he tries to piece together his surprisingly vulnerable postseason rotation.

Brown punched a wall with his left hand after leaving his start against the Orioles on Sept. 3 and then rushed himself back so he could start Sunday in the final regular-season game against the Boston Red Sox.

The lasting image in that rivalry, heading into the playoffs, will be of Brown's leaving the mound in the first inning Sunday, charged with four runs, and humiliated again.

Boston will only feed off that. In a clubhouse filled with hairstyles not common to ballplayers - Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez - the Red Sox look like the sort of loose characters who can withstand the pressures that come when you're trying to erase the Curse of the Bambino.

And for all the fun they're having with the plastic deer, the Cubs know if they win the World Series, it will have more to do with starting pitching than a silly good luck charm.

They have a more favorable schedule than their wild-card competitors from San Francisco, Houston and San Diego. After finishing a four-game series with Cincinnati, they'll finish with three games against the playoff-bound Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field.

"This will probably go to the last day," Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood said.

Wouldn't it be something if it did? Sunday could have Greg Maddux facing his former team from Atlanta, trying to send the Cubs back into the postseason. And right when that game ends, the Angels and A's will square off in Oakland, and the Dodgers will meet the Giants in Los Angeles, taking California rivalries to the bitter end.

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