California dreamin'

Originally Published: September 10, 2004
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

You know what's so great about baseball in California? No hurricanes.

Thanks to the nation's best, most reliable climate, the U.S. Constitution is more open to change than a California team's pocket schedule. True, there is the occasional earthquake delaying the World Series but unlike in New York, you can go to a California ballpark and always count on both teams showing up for the game.

Khalil Greene
Even the Padres, led by rookie Khalil Greene, are invited to this year's playoff-race party.

Not that it always mattered in past Septembers, when at least one (usually the Padres) and often more California teams spent the month simply playing out the schedule. Not this year, though. For the first time in state history, all five California teams enter the season's final weeks in the playoff hunt. Which is a darn sight more than Maryland can say about its one baseball team.

Granted, the star of "Jingle All the Way'' and "Hercules in New York'' isn't involved, but these California races may be even more interesting than the one for governor last year. With approximately 20 games left on the schedule, the Dodgers are in first place in the National League West, the Athletics are in first place in the American League West, the Angels are two games behind Oakland, the Giants are leading the NL wild-card race and the Padres are two games behind them.

With all that going on, the last three weeks figure to be so compelling that the Rally Monkey may need new knee replacement surgery before it's all over. Each game is so important pitchers may actually have to actually throw Barry Bonds a strike. Dodgers fans may even wait until the bottom of the eighth before leaving the stadium early.

While East Coast fans ponder the Yankees next move -- asking the league to grant them a forfeit against the Orioles this weekend "just because we're the Yankees'' -- here are the backstories to the final weeks in California.

Once the pride of the division, the Dodgers haven't won a postseason game since the year Don Sutton was last on their roster. They haven't been to the postseason since the year Tommy Lasorda was last their manager. They finished 15½ games out of first place last year. But they're leading the West by five games thanks to MVP candidate Adrian Beltre, who is hitting .342 with a league-leading 44 home runs and 103 RBI. And get your tickets now, the Dodgers close out the season with a three-game series against the rival Giants, with a real chance to knock them out of the postseason picture.

Like the meteorological scenario posed in "The Day After Tomorrow,'' no one can adequately explain the Giants. Jason Schmidt is the only pitcher to crack double-figures in wins. Only three teams have allowed more runs. Only Bonds has driven in more than 76 runs, scored more than 81 or hit 20 home runs. So how come the Giants may reach the postseason for the fifth time in the past eight seasons? Partly because Schmidt was so good up until injuring his groin, partly because Brett Tomko is having a solid second half, partly because their well-rounded offense leads the league in runs and partly because opposing pitchers occasionally do throw Bonds a strike. He's hitting a league-high .373, slugging .830, has 40 home runs, an on-base percentage of .611 and is just three homers shy of 700. Yeah, that BALCO controversy really bothered him this season.

Look for another green and gold autumn for Barry Zito and the AL West-leading Athletics.

The Padres lost 98 games last year, not only finishing 36½ games behind the Giants but finishing 10 games behind the Rockies as well. Yet thanks to exciting young shortstop Khalil Greene, a solid rotation and a good bullpen, they're in the thick of the wild-card hunt. They face a tough schedule -- they just began an 11-game road trip that will take them to Los Angeles and San Francisco -- but who knows? David Wells may actually avoid falling off a bar stool and cutting himself on broken glass so he can stay in sufficient shape to pitch more than an inning in his final start of the season.

The Athletics have paid their players about as much over the past four seasons combined ($183 million) as the Yankees are paying theirs this season alone, and yet they are on the verge of their fifth consecutive postseason appearance (only the Yankees and Atlanta have more) thanks to the league's best rotation -- it's saying something when Barry Zito is your fourth best starter. The question, however, isn't so much whether they can reach the playoffs again but if they do, whether Oakland can finally advance past the first round (hint: sliding into home plate properly wouldn't hurt).

The Rally Monkey better get his stretching in because he's going to get a lot of work the next couple weeks. Thursday's loss dropped the Angels two games behind Oakland in the West and left them five games behind Boston in the wild-card race. With six games left against Oakland, they're still very much in the title hunt and a strong finish could help seal Vladimir Guerrero's MVP chances.

Can California place four teams into the postseason? It won't be easy -- either the Red Sox or the Yankees would have to completely fall apart for the wild-card team to come out of the AL West -- but they could very well have three again, just as they did in 2002 when the Giants, Athletics and the Angels reached the playoffs and the season ended with an all-California World Series.

Which is another benefit to California baseball. No snowouts during the World Series.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com