As the season winds down, here's a look at the pretenders and contenders for the eight playoff spots.

Predicting finish anyone's guess

Baseball Week

August 28, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN STAFF

IT SEEMS LIKE it took forever to get here - especially if you've followed the Orioles - but baseball is finally entering its stretch run.

The pretenders are looking to next year, while the wild-card races in both leagues have achieved their purpose: infusing excitement into September.

Expect the wild-card hunt to go down to the final weekend, when most of the divisional titles will be wrapped up.

That's a prediction made with confidence. Handicapping the season's final month is trickier. Here's a look at the best bets for the postseason. Keep in mind that it's coming from someone who initially picked the Florida Marlins and Minnesota Twins for the Fall Classic.

American League

Boston Red Sox

Good news: Their offense, led by Most Valuable Player candidate Manny Ramirez, is the most intimidating in the majors, and they won't fold easily.

Bad news: Curt Schilling, David Wells and Keith Foulke are question marks.

Odds: Postseason 2-1; World Series 5-1.

New York Yankees

Good news: They are the Yankees. No matter the inconsistency, they still have supreme talent.

Bad news: They don't deserve to be in this discussion, not with a laughable bullpen and a roll call of underachievers. Still, their alarm for October is about to sound.

Odds: Postseason 12-1; World Series 15-1.

Chicago White Sox

Good news: They've earned the league's best record with superb pitching and an offense that will bounce back if igniter Scott Podsednik returns healthy.

Bad news: They've looked awfully mediocre against good teams lately.

Odds: Postseason 2-5; World Series 5-1.

Cleveland Indians

Good news: A great bullpen, tons of young talented hitters and they're too green to know they are a year away.

Bad news: Few battle-tested veterans. And the division title is out of reach.

Odds: Postseason 15-1; World Series 40-1.

Minnesota Twins

Good news: Johan Santana and a solid bullpen.

Bad news: The banged-up offense can't score.

Odds: Postseason 15-1; World Series 50-1.

Los Angeles Angels

Good news: Solid pitching, a slick defense and the incomparable Vladimir Guerrero.

Bad news: Teams can pitch around Vlady with Garret Anderson hobbled and Steve Finley's bat AWOL.

Odds: Postseason 3-1; World Series 4-1.

Oakland Athletics

Good news: They can hang with anyone in a short series thanks to a talented rotation. Eric Chavez and Barry Zito are leaders.

Bad news: No one in the lineup besides Chavez is scary.

Odds: Postseason 15-1; World Series 60-1.

National League

Atlanta Braves

Good news: They have the game's best manager and a perfect mix of veterans and hungry youth.

Bad news: Their starting pitching depth is cracking again. They are branded by that choker label.

Odds: Postseason 2-1; World Series 8-1.

St. Louis Cardinals

Good news: Just about everything. Great pitching, great defense, Albert Pujols.

Bad news: Scott Rolen's absence crimps their run-scoring capability.

Odds: Postseason 1-3; World Series 2-1.

San Diego Padres

Good news: They play in the pathetic National League West.

Bad news: They'll have to face good teams in October.

Odds: Postseason 2-1; World Series 80-1.

Philadelphia Phillies

Good news: They've made a nice comeback and, remarkably, have one of the best bullpens in the NL.

Bad news: Even with the emergence of Ryan Howard (above), losing Jim Thome's bat hurts. They have no ace.

Odds: Postseason 10-1; World Series 75-1.

Florida Marlins

Good news: They have three great starting options and a fairly balanced offense.

Bad news: They embark on an 11-game road trip to Washington, Philadelphia and Houston starting Labor Day.

Odds: Postseason 8-1; World Series 20-1.

New York Mets

Good news: They're still in it, though no one has paid any attention to them. And they have Pedro Martinez.

Bad news: The offense and defense are shaky.

Odds: Postseason 25-1; World Series 100-1.

Washington Nationals

Good news: Nineteen of their final 28 games are at spacious RFK - a huge advantage for a light-hitting team. And they thrive when counted out.

Bad news: They're limping to the finish after a nice run.

Odds: Postseason 20-1; World Series 100-1.

Houston Astros

Good news: They have a trio of pitching studs and 14 of their final 16 games are against lowly Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs while their wild-card rivals will beat up each other.

Bad news: A slow offensive start cost them a division title shot.

Odds: Postseason 7-1; World Series 20-1.

EXTRA BASES

Say what?

"When somebody says to you, 'You're an idiot,' and then comes back the next day and says, 'You're an idiot,' then looks you in the eye and says, 'You're an idiot,' again, pretty soon you're going to take it seriously." Dodgers outfielder Milton Bradley, describing second baseman Jeff Kent's abrupt style that allegedly contributed to an escalating war of words between the teammates. The animosity began last weekend, when Kent criticized Bradley for not scoring from first on a double. It grew into an ugly public spat in which Bradley, who is black, accused Kent, who is white, of not dealing well with African-American players.

Who's he?

Joey Devine. A 21-year-old right-handed reliever for the Atlanta Braves who became the first member of the 2005 amateur draft class to make it to the majors. With a nearly sidearm delivery, he has a 97-mph fastball and a devastating slider. But he's no longer at North Carolina State. In his first big league appearance, he gave up a grand slam to San Diego's Xavier Nady and picked up the loss.

Numbing number

7

Number of times Houston's offense has been shut out this year while ERA leader Roger Clemens is on the mound for the Astros. Overall, the team has been blanked an incredible 15 times this season.

What's up?

A major pennant race showdown in three National League cities to begin this week. Washington plays at Atlanta, Philadelphia is in New York and St. Louis visits Florida. In the American League, the intriguing rivalry between the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels is renewed. The three-game series in Anaheim starts Tuesday.

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