MLB wild card race
heats up, Gazette stays cool
By David Lee
Even though the NFL has just finished up its
first week of the season, right now is a great time to be a
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.
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
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.
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
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.