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D-Backs, Tribe could spell doom for contenders

9/15/2006

It is a word that should be reserved only for baseball, and exclusively for this time of year. A spoiler is a team with no playoff hope that ruins the hopes for one team, if not more, down the stretch.
For some teams, it's all there is to play for in September.

Every year, there usually is a different spoiler. This year, the best candidates are the Diamondbacks and Indians.

The Diamondbacks are the perfect spoilers because they were contenders until early September, when they lost six games in a row, including three brutal losses in Washington. Naturally, if they're not going to the playoffs, then they don't want anyone else going, either. Arizona will play only contenders starting Tuesday, when it visits San Diego for the first of seven games against the Padres -- the final four games will be at home, and will close out the regular season. The Diamondbacks have three games with the Dodgers and three with the Giants. Arizona is 6-9 against the Giants this season, 7-8 against the Dodgers (L.A.'s Greg Maddux has only one career victory against the Diamondbacks) and 7-5 against the Padres.

"We want to win as many games as possible, we want to finish on a good note,'' Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. "We want to set the tone in the division. We've played well in the division this year. It would be nice to beat up on the teams ahead of us.''

Arizona has a roster full of players who have something to prove and to play for, which is essential for a spoiler. They have young, talented and hungry kids such as shortstop Stephen Drew, right fielder Carlos Quentin and center fielder Chris Young, who have locked up jobs for next year. Rookie catcher Miguel Montero is bidding to share time in '07 with Chris Snyder.

The Diamondbacks also have veteran players with a lot at stake. Left fielder Luis Gonzalez will not return to the D-Backs in 2007, but could impress other teams to consider signing him in the offseason if he has a strong finish. Ace Brandon Webb has a shot to win the National League Cy Young Award; every pitch will count for him the rest of the way. Another starting pitcher, veteran Livan Hernandez, has plenty of experience pitching in games down the stretch. The Diamondbacks are looking for a closer for next year. The wild and erratic Jorge Julio won't be back. Jose Valverde and Tony Pena will use the stretch run to help their causes in winning the job in 2007.

The Indians also have a lot to play for. They have been a major disappointment this season, and haven't been a factor since April. They were knocked out of the playoff race in the final week last season, losing six of their last seven games to finish six games out in the AL Central, two games out in the wild-card race. Now they have a chance at revenge, specifically with the White Sox, who swept Cleveland in a three-game series the final weekend of last season. The Indians will get the White Sox in Cleveland for a three-game series Sept. 22-25. The Indians are 9-7 against Chicago this season, and have averaged 6.33 runs per game.

The Indians lost the first of a four-game series on Thursday night against the Twins at the Metrodome. The Tribe is 7-9 against Minnesota, scoring 11 runs in a game three times. Starting Monday, the Indians will play four games in Oakland against the A's. The Indians are 2-3 against the A's, but have scored 36 runs in those five games.

"The motivation is not to spoil, but there is a heightened intensity playing teams in the race,'' Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "Especially playing in their park. We had four sold-out games in Chicago last week. Those games add a real boost of adrenaline.''

"The motivation is not to spoil, but there is a heightened intensity playing teams in the race. Especially playing in their park. We had four sold-out games in Chicago last week. Those games add a real boost of adrenaline."
-- Indians GM Mark Shapiro

There are several Indians who also have a great deal to play for. Rookie Ryan Garko, a converted catcher, is trying to prove that he can play first base in the big leagues. Andy Marte is attempting to show that he is indeed the third baseman of the future. Shin-Soo Choo is trying to win an everyday spot in the outfield next to Grady Sizemore, the second player in major league history to have 50 doubles, 20 homers, 10 triples and 20 steals in a season.

The Indians have been playing better lately, as well. And they do have two of the better left-handed starters in the league in C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee; the White Sox are hitting .265 against left-handers and .294 against right-handers through Thursday. Another Indians left-hander, Jeremy Sowers, made his last start of the year Tuesday night to avoid the possibility of being overworked, and the Indians will play the rest of the year without Travis Hafner. Still, they are a dangerous offensive club. And -- not like they know or care about this -- they're trying to avoid becoming the first team in history to outscore their opponents by 50 runs in a season (they're plus-70) and finish 10 games under .500 (they're nine under).

This is not how the Indians planned on playing the final two and half weeks.

"But this is the reality of it,'' Shapiro said.

The reality is, if you can't go to the playoffs, spoil the chances of someone else.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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