At last minute, all matchups set

Season's finish was wild to the end, sending playoff schedule down to wire

October 04, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The celebrations had ended, the champagne had dried and seven of major league baseball's eight playoff teams spent the final day of the regular season thinking, "OK, now what?"

Yesterday, as of 5 p.m., none of the matchups was set.

In the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards, the Boston Red Sox were all dressed up with no place to go. They knew they were traveling west, but they didn't know if they were headed to Minneapolis or Anaheim, Calif., for the start of the American League Division Series.

"It's something we have to deal with," Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon said. "This hasn't happened as far back as I can remember, but it's been great for baseball."

Finally, a few minutes after 5, the whole picture crystallized.

The Houston Astros claimed the National League wild-card berth with a 5-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies. Just like that, the San Francisco Giants' wild-card hopes were dashed, and the NL's first-round matchups were set, with the Los Angeles Dodgers facing the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Astros facing the Atlanta Braves.

The Red Sox finally got the answer they needed when the Cleveland Indians defeated the Minnesota Twins, 5-2. So the Boston players filed out of the clubhouse for a flight to California, where they'll begin the ALDS tomorrow against the Anaheim Angels.

The Twins were trying to secure home-field advantage in the first round, but they needed to sweep their final series against the Indians and hope the Angels lost at least one game.

The AL matchups could have been set Saturday, but Minnesota and Cleveland were tied, 5-5, after 11 innings at the Metrodome, when play was suspended so the field could be converted for college football. The pennant race would wait for the Minnesota Gophers to play Penn State.

Upon hearing this, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told manager Terry Francona he was heading to the ESPN Zone in the Inner Harbor to play Whack A Gopher.

"It's actually Whack A Mole, but they look like gophers," Epstein said. "That's good enough for me."

When play resumed yesterday, the Twins used starting pitcher Kyle Lohse for the 12th inning and won it in the bottom half on Michael Cuddyer's run-scoring double.

So the Red Sox remained uncertain through their final regular-season game, which played out like an exhibition at Camden Yards. Francona subbed for most of his regulars early in the game, and first baseman David McCarty pitched two scoreless innings, as the Orioles pulled out a 3-2 win.

It was hardly as dramatic as Saturday's events on the West Coast, where the Angels won the AL West for the first time since 1986 and the Dodgers won the NL West for the first time since 1995.

Anaheim and Oakland entered the final weekend tied atop their division, but the Angels won, 10-0, on Friday and came back twice on Saturday. Vladimir Guerrero hit a two-run homer off Barry Zito to make it 2-2 in the sixth, and Darin Erstad hit a two-run double in the eighth to make it 4-4 before Garret Anderson singled home the winning run.

The Dodgers and Giants always seem to take their rivalry down to the final weekend, and this time, the Giants had a 3-0 lead Saturday heading into the ninth inning. But the Dodgers came back to win it with seven runs in the ninth, capped by Steve Finley's grand slam.

Giants fans can blame Colorado for helping their team miss the playoffs. The Rockies blew three late-inning inning leads in dropping three of four at Dodger Stadium last week and then rolled over in getting swept at Houston.

The Astros' playoff chances looked slim when they were 56-60 on Aug. 14, but they went 36-10 from that point forward, surging past the Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and the Giants for the wild card.

After winning Saturday, the Astros thought they'd have Roger Clemens pitching the clincher yesterday on three days' rest. But he came down with a stomach virus, so they turned to Brandon Backe, who turned in five strong innings and knocked in two runs.

So eight teams advanced to the postseason, and the other 22 got ready to sit back and watch.

"There are going to be some great matchups," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said. "I don't know if there is clearly one overwhelming team out there right now."

Division Series

American League

Minnesota (Santana 20-6) at New York (Mussina 12-9), tomorrow, 8:19 p.m. (Ch. 45)

Boston (Schilling 21-6) at Anaheim (Washburn 11-8), tomorrow, 4:09 p.m. (ESPN)

National League

Los Angeles (Perez 7-6) at St. Louis (W. Williams 11-8), tomorrow, 1:09 p.m. (ESPN)

Houston (Clemens 18-4) at Atlanta (Wright 15-8), Wednesday, 4:09 p.m. (ESPN)

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