Stretch run is worth getting up for

MLB Week



In many baseball circles, 2005 will be remembered as the year of the steroids.

In Baltimore, it will be remembered as the year of steroids and DUI arrests, a managerial firing, a serious staph infection, a mangled elbow, a summer collapse, a voided contract and surely one more calamity before the final curtain mercifully closes on this tragicomedy next week.

The Orioles' nightmare aside, it's too bad that the specter of illegal performance-enhancing drugs and the subsequent hearings and suspensions casts a shadow over this season. Because these next few weeks are loaded with intrigue.

"I think this has been really cool, the competition and the camaraderie between the teams," said San Francisco Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel. "But I think there always will be a black cloud over baseball because of the whole steroid thing and the guys testing positive and the government thing with [Jose] Canseco opening his mouth.

"It's kind of like there are more people talking about that than really what is going on with the pennant races in baseball. And I think that's kind of sad."

A crying shame really, when you consider the potential story lines about to unfold: The Chicago White Sox could make history by blowing a 15-game lead in two months.

The Cleveland Indians could ride a group of no-names to a postseason berth, especially if they handle the White Sox next weekend in Cleveland.

The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will face off in a three-game series next weekend at Fenway Park that will determine the American League East winner while potentially sending the other superpower home for the winter.

The Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels will pit Moneyball vs. Morenoball, when a little payroll and a big payroll clash for four games in Oakland to see who wins the AL West.

The St. Louis Cardinals, the only team that sewed up its postseason spot before the season's final push, are looking for their second consecutive 100-win season.

The Houston Astros, left for dead in July for a second straight year, might give Craig Biggio and the banged-up Jeff Bagwell another chance at a World Series.

The Atlanta Braves, likely winners of their 14th straight division crown, used 17 rookies to get back to the postseason, where their hopes continually have been dashed.

The San Diego Padres could win their division with a sub-.500 record, or they could surrender the NL West crown to a revived Barry Bonds and the Giants.

Meanwhile, the remaining teams in the National League East, the Philadelphia Phillies, Florida Marlins, Washington Nationals and New York Mets, could all finish above .500 - and one possibly could wrestle the wild card away from the Astros.

How's that for some late-season drama? "I think it is very exciting in our division and in the American League, too," said Washington third baseman Vinny Castilla. "This is what it is all about - being down the stretch and playing for something."

The best part is that there really isn't a slam-dunk favorite once the smoke clears next week. The Cardinals are the most complete team and have recent World Series experience, but they aren't invincible. They were 3-3 against Atlanta and 3-4 against San Diego this season.

In the American League it is anybody's guess. Vizquel, who spent his previous 16 seasons in the AL, no longer has a dog in that fight. But as a baseball fan, he's watching the races closely. And he's confused, too.

"It's hard to say because you have so many great teams," Vizquel said. "The Yankees are still the Yankees. You've got Boston with one of the most feared lineups in the game. You've got the Indians that are playing the best baseball in the last month, and I thought the Oakland A's were going to sneak in there, too.

"And the Angels are a veteran team and know what to do. I thought the Angels were the team to take it all this year, but they are showing some weaknesses now."

He didn't even mention the White Sox, once the AL darlings. So there's no question this is setting up for a wonderful postseason.

Maybe it will be so compelling that the other issues - the steroids and the suspensions and the disappointments - are put on the back burner for a month.

OK, that's probably asking for too much in Baltimore, where this disaster of a season won't easily be dismissed.

Elsewhere, however, maybe the game itself can soften a difficult 2005.

Say what?

Dontrelle Willis

"I'm not a crier, but if I was, I'd definitely be crying."

The Florida Marlins pitcher was presented with a "13 Black Aces" logo by former big league pitchers Jim "Mudcat" Grant and Al Downing. This month, Willis joined Grant, Downing and 10 others as the only African-American pitchers to win 20 games in a season.

Who's he?

Aaron Small

A 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander with the New York Yankees.

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