Way Out Of Whack The new unbalanced schedule has been a boon to fast starters like the Twins

April 29, 2001

As the only club in baseball to lose more than 90 games four
years running, the Twins would be the last team expected to
demonstrate the way the new unbalanced schedule can alter the
dynamics of a pennant race. Minnesota stands, however, as Exhibit
A of how the change in the schedule can translate into a change
in the standings. Minnesota's 14-3 getaway had deeper resonance
this season than it would have had in 2000 because it was amassed
entirely against American League Central opponents, the Royals,
the Tigers and the White Sox, all of whom in only three weeks
fell at least eight games behind--how does this sound?--the
front-running Twins. The unbalanced schedule restores a long-lost
emphasis on such intradivisional series. Since 1979 each team in
the American League had played every other team a nearly equal
number of times, while the National League became similarly
balanced in '93. This season every team plays almost half its
games against divisional foes, including a heavy dose of such
matchups in April. Those games have given a sense of urgency to
what traditionally has been a month of calisthenics.

"We couldn't afford the type of start we had last year because we
might fall too far behind while playing teams in our division,"
says Giants manager Dusty Baker, whose club started 4-11 in 2000
before recovering to win the National League West. Through
Sunday, San Francisco was 11-7 and in first place, largely
because of an 8-4 intradivisional record.

The Mariners won a season-opening round robin in which the four
American League West teams each played 19 intradivisional games.
The 15-4 Mariners used the schedule to build a 5 1/2-game lead
over the second-place Rangers and a nine-game bulge over the
defending division-champion A's. "I like the unbalanced schedule
because to win your division you're going to have to beat the
teams in your division," Yankees manager Joe Torre says. "That
way you've got nobody to blame but yourself if you don't get it
done." That's odd, considering that last season New York edged
the Red Sox by 2 1/2 games to win the American League East even
though the Yankees finished with a pedestrian 25-24 record
within the division. New York finished first in great part
because it beat up on the Rangers (10-2) and National League
teams (11-6)--otherwise the Yankees played .500 ball.

This year the American League East race might be decided not by
how the Blue Jays, the Red Sox and the Yankees fare against one
another but by how much they clean up on their 38 games each
against the dregs of the division, the Orioles and the Devil
Rays. Boston, for instance, already is 9-3 against those two.
That's reminiscent of the performance of the vintage preexpansion
New York teams that capitalized on 66 games every year against
American League patsies like the A's, the Senators and the
Browns/Orioles. From 1934 through '60 the Yankees lost only three
of the 81 season series against those franchises. They won the
'55 pennant by going 50-16 against those teams and 46-42 against
the rest of the league.

The unbalanced schedule also puts a premium on how well pitchers
match up against division rivals. New York lefthander Andy
Pettitte, for instance, figures to make five starts against
Boston this season. After he baffled the Red Sox 6-1 last Friday
night, his career mark against them stood at 6-3 with a 2.61 ERA.
The Rockies would seem well armed for their 76 National League
West games with the addition of free-agent lefties Mike Hampton
and Denny Neagle. That twosome entered this season a combined
46-10 against Colorado's division rivals, with Hampton boasting a
9-0 record against the Giants. Last week the duo threw
back-to-back shutouts against the Padres. Likewise, lefty starter
David Wells, an off-season addition to the White Sox, is 51-20
lifetime against Chicago's rivals in the American League Central.

"The biggest effect of the schedule is going to be on relief
pitchers," Mets manager Bobby Valentine says. "They're going to
get hit more. Before, a team might see a reliever for a couple of
batters, then not again for months. The more a hitter sees him,
the more comfortable he is against him."

In some ways, though, the unbalanced schedule might make everyone
less comfortable. When in April, Mets reliever Turk Wendell hits
Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero with a pitch in retaliation
for swinging on a 3-and-0 count with a 10-run lead, and
Diamondbacks reliever Miguel Batista fires a pitch over the head
of Dodgers second baseman Mark Grudzielanek right after Los
Angeles centerfielder Marquis Grissom swipes second base with an
eight-run lead, and Seattle fans welcome back Rangers shortstop
and former Mariner Alex Rodriguez with a barrage of boos and
bogus dollar bills, the opportunities for reverberations later in
the season increase.

"The more you see a team, the more you'll see issues," says Mets
general manager Steve Phillips. "The more you play, the more
those issues can become heated."

--Tom Verducci

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Long division Sandy Alomar Jr. tagged out Hunter on Saturday, but the Twins have taken advantage of the new schedule to go 6-0 against the White Sox.

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)