Wild-Card Draw The key to the American League playoff chase may not be in the stars

September 17, 2000

Forgive Indians catcher Sandy Alomar if he couldn't pinpoint a
specific thing that Cleveland must do to secure a playoff spot.
"Right now everything is key," said Alomar last Saturday.
"Starting pitching, the bullpen, scoring runs."

That refrain could be heard in clubhouses around the American
League last week, as through Sunday four teams, led by the
Indians, were within 3 1/2 games in the race for the wild-card
berth. Stars are expected to carry their teams in such a close
race, but even the Mannys and Pedros of the world can only do so
much. Here's a lesser-known player on each contender who could
hold the key to his team's hopes in the American League wild-card
race.

--Indians: righthander Steve Karsay. With Manny Ramirez and Kenny
Lofton healthy and Roberto Alomar on a late-summer tear,
Cleveland's offense last week was again a well-oiled machine.
Indians starters, however, were averaging only 5.64 innings per
outing, fourth worst in the league, so Cleveland's wild-card
prospects may well rest with the bullpen--which is why Karsay has
to regain his early-season form. He began the year as a closer
but was shifted to a setup role when Bob Wickman was acquired in
a July 28 trade. Before the deal Karsay had a 3.15 ERA, 19 saves
in 24 chances and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4 to 1;
since then he had gone 2-3 with a 5.89 ERA and nearly as many
walks (13) as whiffs (16), and he had blown all four of his save
opportunities. "There's nothing wrong," said Karsay, who did make
an adjustment last week, focusing on not lifting his head during
his delivery. "I didn't struggle for a long time--I guess now is
the wrong time to start."

--A's: righthander Jim Mecir. Scoring hasn't been a problem for
Oakland, but pitching has. Thanks to Mecir, acquired from the
Devil Rays in July, the A's have survived the second-half
meltdown of All-Star closer Jason Isringhausen. Through Sunday,
Mecir, imported to be a setup man, had converted each of his and
Oakland's last three save opportunities. If Isringhausen regains
form, he and Mecir would give the A's one of the strongest
setup-closer combos in the league.

--Blue Jays: righthander Joey Hamilton. An early September power
outage--Toronto hit only five home runs in its first 10 games of
the month--dimmed the hopes of a team that has relied on the long
ball. A bright spot, however, was Hamilton's return from shoulder
surgery. In four starts since Aug. 19, Hamilton was 2-0 with a
2.42 ERA and had thrown at least six innings in each outing--a
huge relief for a bullpen that usually finds itself overworked on
days David Wells doesn't start.

--Red Sox: leftfielder Troy O'Leary. Massaging the league's
second-best bullpen and a rotation best described as ragtag
beyond Pedro Martinez, manager Jimy Williams has more often than
not reached into his hat and pulled out an effective pitcher. A
more difficult trick has been squeezing runs out of the league's
third-lowest-scoring offense, which is why O'Leary, mired in a
seasonlong slump, must heat up if Boston is to win its third
straight wild-card berth. Through Sunday, O'Leary was hitting
.261 with 11 home runs, 56 RBIs and a sickly .406 slugging
percentage; when the Red Sox won the wild card in 1998 and '99,
he averaged 26 homers and 93 RBIs and had a .481 slugging
percentage.

Catching's Gold Standard
Ausmus Should Pick Up a Glove

Gold Glove winners are baseball's version of made men--once
they're in the club, it's nearly impossible to displace them--but
because of injuries and players switching leagues, there are
several openings for new faces this season. One of the most
interesting choices is at catcher in the American League, in
which the Rangers' Pudge Rodriguez has won the last eight awards
and, when healthy, is clearly the class of the position. The
question is, Did he play enough in 2000 to deserve the award?
Rodriguez's season ended on July 24 when he broke his right
thumb; he finished with 87 games behind the plate and 363 at
bats, a little more than half his workload in a typical season.
"He's the best catcher, but he probably won't win because of [the
injury]," says Tigers bullpen coach Lance Parrish, himself a
three-time Gold Glove catcher. "If Todd Helton's hitting .430 but
gets hurt in midseason, does he still win the batting title?"

No, but there's a formula for determining eligibility in the
batting race. None exists for the Gold Glove, which is awarded by
vote of each league's coaches and managers. Many American
Leaguers think Pudge played enough to retain the award. Plus,
there's precedent for players' winning despite carrying less than
a full workload. Three catchers--the White Sox' Sherm Lollar in
1957, the Braves' Del Crandall in '62 and the Padres' Benito
Santiago in '90--have won despite catching fewer than 100 games
(not counting strike-shortened seasons). "[Rodriguez] still had
300 at bats," says Indians catcher Sandy Alomar, who won the
award in 1990, "and does anyone else come close to doing what he
does?"

There are two candidates. The White Sox' Charles Johnson, who won
the award in the National League from 1995 through '98, through
Sunday had made only one more error (three) this season than
Rodriguez, despite catching 195 2/3 more innings. Brad Ausmus of
the Tigers led the league with a 45.3% success rate at throwing
out base stealers (Rodriguez's was at 41.2%), and his three
passed balls were by far the fewest of anyone who had caught at
least 115 games. "You've got to base it on the year, not on
reputation," says Detroit second baseman Damion Easley.
"Rodriguez didn't finish the year. It falls to the next guy, and
that's Brad."

On Deck
Braving Johnson

Sept. 16, Braves at Diamondbacks
Arizona started the week 4 1/2 games behind the Mets in the
wild-card race and desperately in need of another strong
performance from scheduled starter Randy Johnson. That's no sure
thing against Atlanta. In six career starts against the Braves,
Johnson is 2-3 with a 6.23 ERA, which is more than a run higher
than against any other team. Much of the damage has been done by
Chipper Jones, who has taken the Big Unit deep twice in a game on
two occasions and in his career is 6 for 15 with five homers
against Johnson. Brian Jordan, hitting .353 in 17 at bats, is
another Brave unfazed when facing the Unit.

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CLARKE The Indians need Karsay to return to the form that gave him 19 saves and a 3.15 ERA through July 28. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS With Rodriguez out, is Ausmus in line to win the Gold Glove?

the HOT corner

Rockies outfielder Larry Walker, who shut himself down for the
season with an inflamed elbow last week, has hired a personal
trainer and a nutritionist for the off-season in hopes of curbing
his tendency toward injuries. "I'm going on a three-month
program," says Walker, who has played more than 130 games in a
season only once since 1995. "What I eat every day is going to be
made up by [the nutritionist]. I'm trying to take all the right
steps."...

Royals outfielder-DH Mark Quinn, making a late run at the
American League Rookie of the Year award with 20 homers, 70 RBIs
and a .294 batting average, apparently learned his lesson after
a demotion to Triple A Omaha earlier this year. "When he [first]
came up, he really didn't work hard," says teammate Jermaine
Dye. "Getting sent down was a wake-up call."...

Words for Expos managing general partner Jeffrey Loria to
consider as he mulls over whether to bring manager Felipe Alou
back next season: "If we all had the same players, Felipe wins
the most games," says Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa. "I feel
he's the best manager in this league."...

At week's end the Pirates' Jason Kendall, with 19 stolen bases,
was on the verge of becoming the first catcher with three
20-steal seasons.

For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)