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Pennant race baseball at its best

Special to

August 19

"These games at this point aren't crucial, not yet. But they are urgent."

-- Indians coach Jim Riggleman.

You're an Indians fan and Monday morning you're thinking about the Yankees in October. And, why you ask? Because it's all about revenge. The Tribe had won two of three in a playoff atmosphere in Seattle last weekend. Then came those three games in Oakland and the finale of that series in which the Indians blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning.

Darin Erstad
Though few consider them a serious contender, Darin Erstad and the Angels are right in the thick of the race.

You're an A's fan and you've all but given up on Monday morning. Then they blow out the Indians, get on a plane and Tim Hudson gets shelled in Detroit on Friday night.

You're a Red Sox fan and you've called talk radio 36 times to trash anyone and everyone, then Rico Brogna hits a ninth inning grand slam on Monday and Mike Lansing follows that up by hitting two two-run doubles in the eighth and ninth innings to cap a comeback from five runs down to win 8-7 on Thursday. And by midnight on Friday, Tomo Ohka had beaten Kenny Rogers and the Texas Rangers and you're now just one game out of the wild card.

You're an Angels fan and you watch Carlos Delgado break your heart Wednesday, then lose at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. But you're not out of it because the Angels come back in dramatic fashion by scoring five runs in the top of the ninth inning Friday to tie the Yankees. Then comes extra innings, which turn into the Darin Erstad Show and you're thinking even if Dean Chance comes back and pitches, this team can will itself into the playoffs.

You're a Mariners fan and just when you accept that everyone's saying you've got the pitching to go deep into October, Jamie Moyer has back-to-back starts in which he gave up a total of 22 runs. And to top it all off you get blitzed by the Detroit Tigers on Friday.

And so it goes.

You're a Mets fan and on Wednesday you're thinking about a Subway Series, then Mike Hampton suffers a stress fracture of his rib.

You're a Giants fan and you've been swept three straight in Shea Stadium, but then reel off five straight wins, the last of which was a complete game, four-hit shutout by Livan Hernandez defeating the Braves on Friday and you think this is your year.

And if you're a Diamondbacks fan you watched Matt Williams knock in 11 runs in four games (after having only 15 in the first 3½ months). Curt Schilling comes home on Friday and wipes off the Cubs and you know the D-Backs will pass 90 wins again and will be in it when they take on the Giants for eight of their final 11 regular-season games.

This is what makes baseball so great. "It changes so fast, from day to day, you feel as if you're alternatively living and dying for 162 consecutive days," says Dodgers GM Kevin Malone, whose team seemingly never gets off of that L.A. Freeway and thus leaves Malone feeling more dead than alive.

"Sometimes I don't know if I can take these mood swings that come with the job," says Oakland GM Billy Beane. "What I have to do is accept that the A's are a young team, they're going to make you ecstatic and break your heart. It's the nature of the team, the job, the business. I think I understand why Pat Gillick's in The Dominican this week."

"Fans ask us, ask the media, ask everyone 'what's going to happen,' and the only thing I can guarantee is that if someone gives them a definitive answer, that person doesn't know what he's talking about," says Ranger manager Johnny Oates, a man who has finished in first place three times in the last four years and this season is playing without his Cooperstown catcher (Ivan Rodriguez), the potential rookie of the year (Ruben Mateo) and pitcher Justin Thompson.

There are, however, some individual pitchers on which many teams rely heavily on. Below is a list of those all-important pitchers:

  • Hampton. The Mets are still a very good team even if he isn't 100 percent, but the expectation bar has been raised to a World Championship level and he is a huge part of that expectation.

  • John Rocker. When he saved games Tuesday and Wednesday against the Padres, it was the first time since May 12-13 that he'd saved successive games. As long as Kevin Millwood's strained patella tendon isn't serious, Rocker is as huge a key as any to the Braves' long-term success in the postseason as anyone. That is because if he is the dominant closer at the end of the staff, then every one of the other relievers is better in their role. After all that's gone in it would be a nice story to see him succeed and to have learned from all that unraveled around him.

  • Roger Clemens. This is not the time to go back over his entire postseason career and get Bill Fischer caught between Clemens and John McNamara, but he's pitched better in the recent past than he's reputed to have pitched in the playoffs and World Series. But while Clemens is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer and while he won a playoff game in Texas and the World Series clincher last season, one great October is still something he burns to put above the plaque.

    He has had time off, so he will be strong, and the work he did with Billy Connors in Tampa, Fla. has Clemens throwing as well as he did in 1997 or even Aug., 1990. He is back up over the rubber, balanced and high to get his old angle. He is also back to being a power control pitcher (34 of his first 37 pitches in Anaheim last Sunday were fastballs) and as one AL scout says, "he could be the guy they ride to win it all."

    In fact, while Clemens is back to his old self, the Yankees have revived their traditional formula with the additions of David Justice, Glenallen Hill and Jose Canseco, who combined hit 55 homers in 35 games in Pinstripes through Friday. And the patient approach to the game that Justice and Canseco employ seem to have impacted the entire team. "They're a better team than they were last year," says Rangers catcher Bill Haselman. "They really scare me."

  • Rolando Arrojo. There were several teams that wanted Arrojo, but the Red Sox got him because they were willing to take Mike Lansing's contract. But Arrojo has had two straight dominant starts that raise the question: is he, like Orlando Hernandez, someone whose baseball attention span needs the big crowds and the pressure? His old manager in Tampa Bay Larry Rothschild always said that about him.

    Remember, as his Villa Clara club in Cuba won four championships, and after Arrojo beat Hernandez in the fifth game of the '95 Cuban series, he was The Man. Remember, every playoff game in Cuba is like the October Saturday when Pedro Martinez beat Clemens in Fenway last year. Remember, for the first time in his career, the quiet, seemingly lonely Arrojo -- a highly intelligent man from the Cuban countryside whose wife is a doctor -- has peers with whom to hang in Pedro and Ramon Martinez. If Arrojo ever starts pitching like a No. 2 and catches the fancy of the Fenway frenetic in September, he could be a huge factor.

  • Chuck Finley and Bartolo Colon. Finley's outing Tuesday was encouraging, but the front end of the Cleveland staff has to pitch the way they were expected to pitch in order to take pressure off of the back end of the staff. Every Finley teammate, past and present, would probably bet the house on him.

  • James Baldwin. The White Sox starters have not been sharp since the All-Star break: Baldwin(2-1, 4.31), Mike Sirotka(2-4, 5.06), Jim Parque(2-2, 5.66) and Lorenzo Barcelo, Rocky Biddle and Mark Buehrle allowed 25 earned runs in 32 innings before Jon Garland won Friday. The White Sox have earned the right to give Baldwin a start off to regain arm strength. They also have to hope to get something from Ken Hill or Cal Eldred and forget that after the All-Star break last season Parque was 0-9 with a 6.95 ERA and Sirotka wasn't much better going 4-5 with a 4.93 ERA. They need Baldwin, who has a history of finishing strong.

  • Joe Nathan. If the Giants' prized young right-hander is healthy, the Giants can go six deep in the rotation and eventually add two good arms to the pen for the postseason in front of Robb Nen and Felix Rodriguez. The San Francisco bullpen, however, might not need much help as they are fresh and peaking at precisely the right time.

    Of course, let a couple of these guys go haywire and a lot of teams and fans will become very upset. Oh well, that's what makes these six months so much fun. And so very depressing.

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  • Gammons: 2000 column archive

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