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Crunch Time

Sept. 05, 2005
Sept. 05, 2005

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Sept. 5, 2005

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Crunch Time

Twelve (contenders) doesn't go into five (postseason spots up for grabs), so which teams will make the cut?

All but one of the 15 major league games played on Sunday carried playoff implications. The six-division, two-wild-card format, designed to maintain fan interest and maximize club profitability for as long--and in as many cities--as possible, has never worked better in its 11 seasons. Nor have its results been more bizarre.

This is an article from the Sept. 5, 2005 issue Original Layout

You want wild? At week's end a last-place team (the Nationals) was just 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot; the team with the 25th-best record in baseball (the Giants) was considering printing playoff tickets; the team with the 16th-best record (the Padres) was a virtual lock for the postseason; and 17 of the 30 teams were fewer than six games out of a playoff spot.

In an era in which the three most recent world champions were second-place teams, analyzing pennant races has never been more difficult. Aided by 10 years of wild-card history, however, here's what we do know.

•The Cardinals (14 1/2 games up in the NL Central at week's end), the Padres (+5 1/2 in the NL West) and the White Sox (+8 in the AL Central) are most likely safe. In the past 10 years only one of the 45 first-place teams that had a lead of more than three games on Aug. 28 has failed to make the playoffs: the 1995 Angels.

•The Giants, seven games out in the NL West, would be wasting a lot of ink. All but three of the past 80 playoff teams were within 2 1/2 games of a playoff spot on Aug. 28--with the 2004 Astros, who were five back, being the outer limit.

•The wild-card leaders in your Monday-morning newspaper (the Yankees and the Phillies) are likely to remain so in your Oct. 3 edition. Of the 20 teams to win wild-card berths, 15 either led or were virtually tied for the spot on Aug. 28.

With those lessons in mind, here are the 12 teams with a fighting shot at one of the five playoff spots still up for grabs, ranked in order of their chances.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

1. ANGELS Only the Red Sox have been better at getting hits with two outs and runners in scoring position (.273). Los Angeles needs injured righthander Kelvim Escobar to come back and reinforce a gasping bullpen (4.71 ERA over the past 32 games), but with 16 of their final 20 games against losing teams, the Angels should overtake the A's, a half game up at week's end, and win the AL West.

2. RED SOX Boston is a throwback team: It gets leads, and its bullpen throws them back. The Red Sox' 5.42 ERA in relief is the worst in baseball except for that of the Diamondbacks, so Boston needs closer Keith Foulke back and effective after knee surgery. The Red Sox' formidable offense should sufficiently outslug opponents to win the AL East, but that is rarely a successful postseason strategy.

3. INDIANS Led by closer Bob Wickman, Cleveland has the majors' best bullpen (2.83 ERA). Its offense is deep now that red-hot Victor Martinez (.401 since the All-Star break) is protecting MVP candidate Travis Hafner. A soft schedule will also help the third-best road team in baseball. Look for the Indians to buck the trend and win the wild card despite not leading the race for it on Aug. 28.

4. YANKEES Shawn Chacon and Jaret Wright (a combined 5-0 from Aug. 14) have rescued a patchwork rotation, and Randy Johnson looked sharp last Friday against the Royals, but it's too little, too late. Of the top six AL contenders, New York has the second-worst run differential (outscoring opponents by 77) and the worst clutch hitting (.235 with two outs and runners in scoring position), which is why the Yankees will miss the postseason for the first time since 1993.

5. A'S Rich Harden and Barry Zito lead the toughest pitching staff to hit in baseball (.240 average against), and Oakland has a talented rookie closer in Huston Street. But the A's are too reliant on inexperienced arms and too inconsistent on offense to win a playoff spot.

6. TWINS No AL team has ever made the postseason with an offense this bad. Minnesota, likely without centerfielder Torii Hunter the rest of the way, is on pace to score 703 runs, well below the previous post-1995 low-water mark for a playoff team (768), which was set by the 2002 Twins and the '03 A's.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

1. BRAVES Atlanta has never blown a September NL East lead in the wild-card era, and two of the best big-game starters in the business, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, won't let it happen this year. An inconsistent bullpen, however, makes the Braves vulnerable in October.

2. ASTROS Among NL contenders no team has a better Big Three than Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte or a better closer than Brad Lidge. Houston also has the easiest schedule, playing 14 of its last 16 games against teams with a losing record, which will help the Astros nail down the wild-card spot.

3. METS Hot at the right time, New York has outscored every NL team except the Reds since the All-Star break, and its rotation is rolling. The Mets finish with four games at home against the Rockies, the worst team in the league, while the other NL East teams battle each other. But six games against its nemesis, the Braves, will be New York's undoing.

4. PHILLIES Philadelphia plays 25 of its final 31 games against NL East teams and 12 of its final 15 on the road. That's not good news for a team that's 22-28 in intradivision games (worst in the East) and 30-33 away from home.

5. MARLINS This talented but confounding team has the worst record in one-run games among NL contenders (15-20) and a brutal closing schedule: 32 straight games against teams with winning records.

6. NATIONALS The lowest-scoring team in baseball has no right to be in a pennant race, but pesky Washington refuses to go away. Well-worn closer Chad Cordero (41 saves in 63 appearances) must hold up for another month. The Nats do play nine of their final 12 at home, where anticipation of the first postseason in Washington since 1933 will at least be energizing.

The Final Leg

Assuming the Cardinals, Padres and White Sox hold on atop their divisions, there are three playoff spots left to be won in the AL and two in the NL. Here's how the schedules stack up for the 12 teams vying for those spots (listed in projected order of finish; stats through Sunday).

[This article contains two tables. Please see a hard copy or pdf.]

AMERICAN LEAGUE

TEAMW-LGAMES LEFTHOME/ROADVS. .500 OR BETTERVS. SUB-.500
Angels73--573216/161319
Red Sox74--543422/122113
Indians73--583118/131516
Yankees73--563313/201518
A's73--563316/172013
Twins68--623216/161616

 

NATIONAL LEAGUE

TEAMW-LGAMES LEFTHOME/ROADVS. .500 OR BETTERVS. SUB-.500
Braves74--563219/13266
Astros68--623217/151220
Mets68--623216/16284
Phillies70--613113/18283
Marlins69--613215/17320
Nationals67--633219/13266

 

PHOTORICH KANE/ICON SMIWILD RIDE Pettitte and Martinez (inset) have their teams on track for the playoffs.PHOTOKIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM [See caption above.]