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It is as if one wakes up each morning with a different conviction. Oakland and Anaheim Wednesday. Boston and Anaheim Thursday. Texas and Oakland Friday. On the morning of Saturday, Aug. 28, Boston had won 9 of 10, Anaheim had won nine straight, Oakland 10 of 11 ... and there were only three days all month when both the A's and Angels lost.
As the race for the final spots in the American League playoffs appears to be coming down to the final weekend -- with an unusual importance placed on Boston's upcoming consecutive series with Anaheim, Texas and (at) Oakland -- the balance of the league is such that, heading toward the Labor Day turn, one can make an argument for almost every one of the contenders going all the way to the World Series. And that's with the added hope that Troy Glaus and Trot Nixon will return for the final few weeks, and that somehow Oakland ownership will decide the $1.8 million it would cost to have Jeff Kent is worth what they will lose if they miss out on the playoffs after four straight years in the postseason.
Because the Yankees have been on top for so long and have been so hyped since the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez, the last two months have been spent wondering if they have the starting pitching to go deep into October. At this point, it is a serious concern. But even if teams begin to pitch around Gary Sheffield as if he's Barry Bonds, with Derek Jeter at the front of the order and Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams stretching the order, they are a very dangerous offensive team, even if A-Rod presses in the post-season. While the bullpen can close out most six-inning leads, the starting pitching, which has been been hit as no Yankee staff has been in 15 years, is a concern. But Orlando Hernandez and Javier Vazquez should be fine, and the Yankees have to hope that Kevin Brown and/or Mike Mussina shakes off the rust and pitches to his October history. Are the Yankees beatable? Yes. Are they beaten? No.
The Twins could be extremely dangerous, particularly against patient offensive teams like the Yankees, A's and Red Sox because their starters pound the strike zone so effectively. To begin with, in a five-game series they are formidable because they have Johan Santana, currently the league's best pitcher, and Brad Radke going in three of the five games -- that is if Santana's career high in innings doesn't catch up to him. Kyle Lohse has obviously been a disappointing enigma, but if Joe Nathan's meltdown last week is temporary, they have a group of power arms around him -- Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, Grant Balfour, Jesse Crain -- that can miss bats. The Twins don't have the thumpers to match New York, Boston or Anaheim, and they do miss Joe Mauer, but the defense is good, the hitters by and large make contact and they will have the HankeyDome noise and ceiling in their favor at home. This is the Cardinals' worst nightmare: The Twins have home-field advantage if they make it to the World Series.
The Red Sox were built for the post-season in that they were built around their starting pitching, beginning with Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, with Derek Lowe and Bronson Arroyo currently pitching the best they have all season. If one buys into the Billy Beane theory that the first two months are spent figuring out what your team has, the next two months are to get what you need and the last two months are played with the team you want, then this Red Sox team may be different than the one that reported to spring training, but it is playing its best heading toward September. Since Jason Varitek stuck his hand in A-Rod's face, they have been 22-9 (going into the game of Aug. 28). Since the trade of Nomar Garciaparra, they have played far better defensively (two unearned runs in 20 games) and have been more energetic and creative; they also lead the AL in runs and both on-base and slugging percentages. Friday, Nixon declared that his quadriceps muscle is healed, and he is headed off to a rehab assignment with the full intention of coming back and being available to play right field down the stretch. For those who believed that last year's team was a collection of career years, it should be pointed out that David Ortiz, Varitek and Kevin Millar all are having better seasons, and since he had his knee scoped, Bill Mueller has been the same player as 2003. Are there concerns? Certainly, beginning with any series of games when the bullpen has to be stretched past six outs. But if they make it into the playoffs, the Red Sox can use one of their starters in a setup role.
There are days when one can argue that the Angels are the best team in the league, so good that all they will need is for Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jarrod Washburn to get them to their bullpen to pull off another 2002. Anaheim does a lot of things very well: The Angels attack differently than any other American League team, defensively (with an infield that makes plays and two great arms on the outfield corners), at the plate and on the bases and on the mound, where they pitch in as well as any AL staff. They are a different team when they can feed off Darin Erstad, who not only has been on fire since he came back in June, but has seemingly learned to occasionally relax. Chone Figgins is Tony Phillips Redux. If Glaus comes back in Boston this week, the Angels have plenty of power, but because they have so many hitters who can make contact, they still make productive outs around Vladimir Guerrero, Glaus, Garret Anderson and Jose Guillen. This may be the only team that opponents look forward to the closer, but Anaheim has a bullpen that can go four innings a night. Beware.
Even if the Athletics have lost in the first round four consecutive Octobers and have failed to win a potential clinching game, every other team is wary of playing them. One reason for Oakland's playoff failure has been that its three extraordinary starting pitchers haven't all been healthy in October; last year, Mark Mulder was out and Tim Hudson had the bad hip for the second year in a row. So it may be a good thing that Hudson missed time in the regular season this year. Not only that, but this season Rich Harden has been almost as consistent as Mulder, and with his power arm -- in his last start, his final pitch was 97 mph -- he can overpower hitters up and down in the strike zone. Harden also can get Oakland to the eighth inning, which with the A's bullpen -- one reason Barry Zito has so few wins is that his pitch count has forced the bullpen into games in the sixth and seventh innings -- may be necessary unless Ricardo Rincon and Arthur Rhodes have dramatic finishes. Even without Miguel Tejada, this is a far better offensive team than last season. The A's need Kent because of their vulnerability against lefties, but then neither New York nor Boston has a left-handed starter or a left-handed reliever that dominates left-handed batters.
And then there's Texas. The Rangers' on-base percentage is under .300 since the All-Star break, but they keep winning. They haven't had anyone regularly in the rotation besides Ryan Drese and Kenny Rogers, and they continue to win; they won Tuesday, Thursday and Friday this week in games started by Chris Young, Chan Ho Park and John Wasdin. So who's to say they will fade to black? They play really hard, their veterans like Eric Young, David Dellucci and Brian Jordan give them energy and with Frank Francisco, Ron Mahay (.209 vs. lefties), Brian Shouse (.169) and Carlos Almanzar in front of Francisco Cordero, their bullpen matches the Angels'. If they make the playoffs, all they have to do is make it a bullpen game and they can win. You want to tell Michael Young, Hank Blalock or Mark Teixeira that they can't win?
So this is one of those years when anyone could come out of the American League, which makes September and October all the more interesting.
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