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Uncertainty reigns in races

Special to

Oct. 2

With less than 30 hours remaining in the originally scheduled regular season, there remained the possibility that Jose Lima and Brandon Backe would match up Tuesday to determine whether the Dodgers or Astros would face the Cardinals as the National League wild-card representative, not to mention the chance that the Dodgers would face the Braves as the NL West winner.

In a span of three hours Friday, two different potential playoff general managers said, "The two teams I would least like to face in the playoffs are the Cubs and Padres." OK. And when they begin the postseason, the aces of the two best teams in the league are Jaret Wright and Jason Marquis, while Backe, Lima, Jerome Williams or Noah Lowry could open the playoffs.

Meanwhile, in the American League, not only didn't the Yankees and Red Sox know their Tuesday opponents, but the Twins also didn't know if they had their dome-field advantage. The Yankees didn't know whether Orlando Hernandez could start or Kevin Brown was ready or Jason Giambi would be on the playoff roster.

Teams which have already qualified for the postseason or are still in the hunt against teams that were in the hunt throughout the final month:

Boston, 26-15
New York, 22-20
Anaheim, 24-21
Minnesota, 12-15
St. Louis, 30-25
Los Angeles, 24-19
San Francisco, 22-21
Atlanta, 16-16
Houston, 25-30

So if someone on one of those screaming shows tries to say he knows who's a "lock" to win the World Series, turn it off. There are a half-dozen reasons why every one of the AL contenders can get to the World Series -- Curt Schilling, John Lackey and Wright have started Game 7s -- and there are nine reasons why they won't. With Chris Carpenter out and Matt Morris struggling, there is no logical favorite in the NL.

Back in March, some of us predicted that Eddie Vedder would get his wish and that the Cubs would beat the Red Sox in the Series. Now? Tell me Miguel Cairo, Jason Kubel, Mark Bellhorn, Dustin Hermanson or Jayson Werth is going to be the World Series MVP and, well, I wouldn't be shocked, sitting here contemplating Backe vs. Lima.

A breakdown of the leagues:

American League
The Yankees lost six of seven to the Red Sox in April, got up and eventually took over the AL East lead. In September, the Yanks lost a 3-2 heartbreaker on a Friday night at Yankee Stadium with Mariano Rivera on the mound, won the next two games, lost two of three the next weekend at Fenway Park and proceeded to sweep the Twins to clinch the East. In other words, no matter how tattered its rotation looks, this is a resolute team, the team of Derek Jeter, Rivera and Joe Torre that all season found ways to win. They should score runs. Jeter will star, and so will Gary Sheffield and Jorge Posada.

The big questions are:

1. The starters. Mike Mussina is a proven October horse, but even he is now throwing many more breaking balls. Jon Lieber has been very good, but Javier Vazquez in the second half has had trouble finding his arm slot and has seen his fastball flat and too often hittable. Then there's the El Duque question, and one scout called his outing on Friday "ugly --all eephus pitches except a few fastballs he had to grunt to get up to 84." Which leads to:

2. The bullpen depth. They are likely going to need nine to 11 outs in several games to go deep into October, and that will be a huge burden on Tom Gordon and Rivera. Torre will try Tanyon Sturtze, but there is the intriguing possibility that as (if) they go deep in the postseason that Brown could be a dominating force.

If one were to put this to a poll, the Red Sox might well be the favorites because of Schilling and Pedro Martinez. They have the deepest lineup -- from Johnny Damon, who's had a great season, at the top of the order to Bill Mueller in the eight or nine hole -- far beyond Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz and the July 31 trades they made that changed the way they play defense and use their bench. Boston and New York have lineups that force opposing starters out of games early, and they get on base and hit doubles and home runs.

The presence of Schilling and Martinez allows the Red Sox to go into Minnesota and believe they can beat Johan Santana and Brad Radke because they think they can shut down the Twins' offense. But there are concerns. How well will Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield pitch in Games 3 and 4? And then there's the Boston bullpen. Keith Foulke struggled down the stretch, and while Mike Timlin and Alan Embree pitched extremely well last October, are they dominant setup men?

Take the principle teams to get the final nine outs:

Club/Pitchers IP SO SO/9 IP
Min. (Nathan, Romero, Rincon) 222.2 257 10.4
Ana. (Percival, Rodriguez, Donnelly, Shields) 287.1 313 9.8
N.Y. (Gordon, Rivera) 167.1 161 8.7
Bos. (Foulke, Timlin, Embree) 209.1 167 7.2

If one believes that October is the month of the power pitchers -- particularly relievers -- then this could be Boston's Achilles' heel, particularly if Scott Williamson doesn't regain his power. So while Derek Lowe pitched himself out of the rotation, he is a one-time All-Star reliever who could eventually become a significant contributor as a reliever. Anyone who questions that doesn't remember the final two outs he recorded in Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS.

Can the Twins get to the Series? Absolutely, because of Santana and Radke and their power bullpen ... providing J.C. Romero gets straightened out. Carlos Silva pitched well in September as he developed his second and third pitches, and he uses the best defense of the finalists.

Top starters' ERA among potential playoff teams:

American League
Santana, Min., 2.61
Schilling, Bos., 3.26
Radke, Min., 3.28
Escobar, Ana., 3.86
Martinez, Bos., 3.90
Arroyo, Bos., 4.10
Silva, Min., 4.15

National League
Clemens, Hou., 2.98
Perez, L.A., 3.25
Wright, Atl., 3.28
Schmidt., S.F., 3.29
Oswalt, Hou., 3.56
Marquis, St.L., 3.71
Thomson, Atl., 3.72
* Carpenter, St.L., ruled out of first round

The question will surround their ability to hit good pitching, so Shannon Stewart has to have a good postseason. They got healthy during the final two weeks, but they also can't afford to have Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones press.

We know the Angels can win the pennant. Their four starters -- Lackey, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jarrod Washburn -- are capable of keeping them in games and passing it on to the bullpen, where Troy Percival will close and was back up throwing 92-93 mph this past week. They are capable of scoring a lot of runs, but two of their three most important players -- Garret Anderson and Darin Erstad -- are fighting injuries.

One significant aspect is that in the final week, they seemed to recapture their 2002 bravado and intensity. For most of the season, those around the team felt there was something missing and that cliques had developed. But when manager Mike Scioscia, GM Bill Stoneman and owner Artie Moreno stood up and reacted to the umpteenth Jose Guillen meltdown -- and what we saw in the dugout was a tenth of what happened, not to mention approximately the tenth such meltdown -- it galvanized the team and rid them of the clique. If they make it, it will be fun to watch Vlad Guerrero in October.

The Oakland collapse has been tied to one reality -- the Big Three finally hit a collective bump in their careers, and the bullpen was too weak to get nine outs a night. And there was the question of this team's personality, which other than Mark Kotsay seemed passive at times.

Which begs the second guess: Should they have signed Miguel Tejada for five years and $50 million last spring, then traded Eric Chavez last winter for three young players and played Bobby Crosby at third base?

Player BA* OPS* HR* RBI* BA& OPS& HR& RBI&
Tejada .312 .896 33 146 .319 .925 7 26
Chavez .273 .892 29 75 .240 .687 2 11
* -- Season stats. & -- September stats.

Think about Tejada's energy, think about his presence in the lineup and on the top step of the dugout every day.

National League
St. Louis was the best team in baseball for most of the season and deserves the respect of being the favorites. They have a Gold Glover at every position. They have three players -- Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen -- who should be in the top five in the MVP voting. Jason Isringhausen is also a proven closer.

But with Carpenter, their best pitcher, out and Morris struggling, the rotatiobn of Woody Williams, Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Morris raises questions, as does the setup staff with Julian Tavarez and Steve Kline coming off the disabled list. And Rolen's health is a concern.

The Braves got a positive answer on Mike Hampton on Friday and go into the playoffs with a roation consisting of Wright, John Thomson and Russ Ortiz in addition to Hampton. Are they Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz? No, but they can keep the Braves in games where they hope that John Smoltz gets over his late inconsistencies and Chris Reitsma, Kevin Gryboski and Antonio Alfonseca hold together.

Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles must have big Octobers in front of J.D. Drew and Chipper Jones. They do have two rookies starting in Adam LaRoche and Charles Thomas, but they also have a very good bench, which manager Bobby Cox uses brilliantly.

Next comes the Astros. They were the best team in the National League in 1998 and got Kevin Browned, scheduled and shadowed out. Another year, Walt Weiss made the miracle play. If there is a baseball god, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Brad Ausmus, Lance Berkman and friends deserve to win a postseason series.

Sure, it's been Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge and a lot of who's next. Speaking of Lidge, he's been the best closer in the National League down the stretch:

Pitcher Saves IP H BB SO ERA
Lidge 16 31 22 8 55 1.45
Gagne 14 31.1 25 10 38 3.16
Smoltz 17 27.1 34 7 25 4.61
* Aug. 1-Oct. 2.

The Giants have been right at the top of the league in runs scored all season, with a lot of useable, dangerous players around Barry Bonds. J.T. Snow, for instance, has had several dramatic hits, but at times so have Edgardo Alfonzo, Marquis Grissom and Deivi Cruz. The key has been that while Jason Schmidt got hurt at the end of August, Noah Lowry, Brad Hennessy, Jerome Williams and Brett Tomko -- the September ace -- have stepped up. Is the bullpen deep enough for the postseason? Logic says no. But the Giants aren't logical.

Neither are the Dodgers, who after losing Hideo Nomo had to trade for Brad Penny, then lost him to injury. They have a great defense, centered around Cesar Izturis, Adrian Beltre, Alex Cora and Steve Finley. Beltre, Finley, Shawn Green, Werth and Milton Bradley give them a productive core, and the Yhency Brazoban/Eric Gagne team at the end is power personified.

But their front three are Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver and Lima, with no known fourth starter. The middle relief is questionable. But -- and credit manager Jim Tracy for this -- they have the knack of winning one-run games, part of playing 20 percent more one-run games the last four years than any other team.

Hey, it's been a good year for the Dodgers. They reduced payroll, got significantly younger, now have 2005-06 payroll flexibility, drew the most fans to Dodger Stadium in 20 years, have modernized marketing and are in the playoffs for the first time in eight years. And they might even win a postseason game for the first time in 16 years.

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