September 10, 2003  
Volume 97, Issue 7  

Front Page >> Sports > MLB wild card race heats up, Gazette stays cool

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SPORTS

MLB wild card race heats up, Gazette stays cool

By David Lee
Gazette Staff

Even though the NFL has just finished up its first week of the season, right now is a great time to be a baseball fan.

While football seems to garner the majority of attention around this time of year, some of the tightest playoff races in recent memory are shaping up for America's pastime. Thus, Gazette sports presents an early take on the potential baseball playoffs and looks into its trusty old crystal ball to make some bold predictions. You heard it here first - have faith in our beliefs, make your bets early and go home with lots of cash in hand.

AMERICAN LEAGUE
It seems that once again, the New York Yankees will win the AL East and earn yet another playoff berth. Even though the beloved Blue Jays were within striking distance earlier in the season, the savvy of the Yankees has once again paid off and the experience of their veterans is sure to take them far into the playoffs. Mike Mussina has returned to old form and headlines a rotation that includes wily vets like Roger Clemens and David Wells. Add to that one of the best closers ever and a simply sickening offense and the Yankees have got the look of an American League champ.

The small-market Minnesota Twins are giving the Chicago White Sox a run for their money in the always-competitive AL Central. However, it's likely the Twins will fade in traditional style, leaving the Sox atop the Central. Despite having three capable starters in Esteban Loaiza, Bartolo Colon and Mark Buehrle, it's unlikely the Sox would get much done in the playoffs. Colon has been far too inconsistent and Buehrle has been hit hard much of the year. Worst still is the fact Loaiza, who has carried the Sox all year, has no playoff experience. How can a player nobody expected anything from be expected to handle the pressures of carrying his team throughout the playoffs?

The Oakland Athletics are currently in first place in the AL West, though their lead over the Seattle Mariners sits at a precarious two games. If the A's slip and the Mariners overtake them in the West, it's unlikely the A's will be able to match Boston for the wild card. What really hurts the A's is the loss of Mark Mulder to a stress fracture in his femur. While Tim Hudson has been very sharp this year, last year's CY Young winner Barry Zito is barely into the double digits in wins. As a result, the A's were relying on Mulder and his economical pitching to conserve their bullpen and take them far into the playoffs. Without him, the A's will have to wear out their bullpen and rely on less proven options like rookie Rich Harden to start in his place. Coupled with a less than stellar offense, it's unlikely the A's will go far, even if they make the playoffs.

NATIONAL LEAGUE
As with the American League, the NL offers only one very tight race. The 2002 NL Champion Giants figure to once again reach the Fall Classic, bolstered by the elite pitching of Jason Schmidt and an offense anchored by the always dangerous Barry Bonds. With his father Bobby having passed away recently, Barry will have even more motivation to bring a World Series trophy home to San Francisco.

The Giants' biggest rivals in the hunt for the NL championship will be the Atlanta Braves. Despite the collapse of perennial all-star Greg Maddux, ex-Giant Russ Ortiz has more than filled the role of staff ace for the Braves. Add to that the revitalization of Mike Hampton's career and the Braves have nearly as good a rotation as last year. Meanwhile, the Braves' offense is the most potent it has ever been, with career years for 1-2 men Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles as big contributing factors.

The tightest division by far is the NL Central. At the time of printing, the Chicago Cubs had a half-game lead over the Houston Astros with the St. Louis Cardinals only one and a half games back of the Cubbies. Pitching will be the deciding factor here - while the Cards enjoy the return of their ace Matt Morris, the Cubs are taking full advantage of a host of young arms headlined by sophomore stud Mark Prior.

Between Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs have a starting trio equal to any other in baseball. Prior has been the real standout of the group - while Wood has been hampered by back problems and Zambrano has been hit or miss, Prior has been nothing short of spectacular. Though he was sidelined for a brief period after a vicious collision with Atlanta 2B Marcus Giles, Prior has been lights-out since his return, winning seven straight starts while lowering his ERA from 3.01 to a minuscule 2.41. If the Cubs hope to do anything in the playoffs, Prior will have to continue his dominance.
Roy Oswalt is also due back for Houston, which should provide the club with a morale boost if not in the victory department. However, Oswalt's groin has been injured and re-injured throughout the season, so Astros fans shouldn't expect to see a return to the form that won Oswalt 19 games in 2002.

 

 

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