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Monday, August 9, 2004
Updated: September 1, 9:10 AM ET
One day at a time

By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com

Aug. 28

It is as if one wakes up each morning with a different conviction. Oakland and Anaheim Wednesday. Boston and Anaheim Thursday. Texas and Oakland Friday. On the morning of Saturday, Aug. 28, Boston had won 9 of 10, Anaheim had won nine straight, Oakland 10 of 11 ... and there were only three days all month when both the A's and Angels lost.

As the race for the final spots in the American League playoffs appears to be coming down to the final weekend -- with an unusual importance placed on Boston's upcoming consecutive series with Anaheim, Texas and (at) Oakland -- the balance of the league is such that, heading toward the Labor Day turn, one can make an argument for almost every one of the contenders going all the way to the World Series. And that's with the added hope that Troy Glaus and Trot Nixon will return for the final few weeks, and that somehow Oakland ownership will decide the $1.8 million it would cost to have Jeff Kent is worth what they will lose if they miss out on the playoffs after four straight years in the postseason.

Because the Yankees have been on top for so long and have been so hyped since the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez, the last two months have been spent wondering if they have the starting pitching to go deep into October. At this point, it is a serious concern. But even if teams begin to pitch around Gary Sheffield as if he's Barry Bonds, with Derek Jeter at the front of the order and Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams stretching the order, they are a very dangerous offensive team, even if A-Rod presses in the post-season. While the bullpen can close out most six-inning leads, the starting pitching, which has been been hit as no Yankee staff has been in 15 years, is a concern. But Orlando Hernandez and Javier Vazquez should be fine, and the Yankees have to hope that Kevin Brown and/or Mike Mussina shakes off the rust and pitches to his October history. Are the Yankees beatable? Yes. Are they beaten? No.

The Twins could be extremely dangerous, particularly against patient offensive teams like the Yankees, A's and Red Sox because their starters pound the strike zone so effectively. To begin with, in a five-game series they are formidable because they have Johan Santana, currently the league's best pitcher, and Brad Radke going in three of the five games -- that is if Santana's career high in innings doesn't catch up to him. Kyle Lohse has obviously been a disappointing enigma, but if Joe Nathan's meltdown last week is temporary, they have a group of power arms around him -- Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, Grant Balfour, Jesse Crain -- that can miss bats. The Twins don't have the thumpers to match New York, Boston or Anaheim, and they do miss Joe Mauer, but the defense is good, the hitters by and large make contact and they will have the HankeyDome noise and ceiling in their favor at home. This is the Cardinals' worst nightmare: The Twins have home-field advantage if they make it to the World Series.

The Red Sox were built for the post-season in that they were built around their starting pitching, beginning with Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, with Derek Lowe and Bronson Arroyo currently pitching the best they have all season. If one buys into the Billy Beane theory that the first two months are spent figuring out what your team has, the next two months are to get what you need and the last two months are played with the team you want, then this Red Sox team may be different than the one that reported to spring training, but it is playing its best heading toward September. Since Jason Varitek stuck his hand in A-Rod's face, they have been 22-9 (going into the game of Aug. 28). Since the trade of Nomar Garciaparra, they have played far better defensively (two unearned runs in 20 games) and have been more energetic and creative; they also lead the AL in runs and both on-base and slugging percentages. Friday, Nixon declared that his quadriceps muscle is healed, and he is headed off to a rehab assignment with the full intention of coming back and being available to play right field down the stretch. For those who believed that last year's team was a collection of career years, it should be pointed out that David Ortiz, Varitek and Kevin Millar all are having better seasons, and since he had his knee scoped, Bill Mueller has been the same player as 2003. Are there concerns? Certainly, beginning with any series of games when the bullpen has to be stretched past six outs. But if they make it into the playoffs, the Red Sox can use one of their starters in a setup role.

There are days when one can argue that the Angels are the best team in the league, so good that all they will need is for Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jarrod Washburn to get them to their bullpen to pull off another 2002. Anaheim does a lot of things very well: The Angels attack differently than any other American League team, defensively (with an infield that makes plays and two great arms on the outfield corners), at the plate and on the bases and on the mound, where they pitch in as well as any AL staff. They are a different team when they can feed off Darin Erstad, who not only has been on fire since he came back in June, but has seemingly learned to occasionally relax. Chone Figgins is Tony Phillips Redux. If Glaus comes back in Boston this week, the Angels have plenty of power, but because they have so many hitters who can make contact, they still make productive outs around Vladimir Guerrero, Glaus, Garret Anderson and Jose Guillen. This may be the only team that opponents look forward to the closer, but Anaheim has a bullpen that can go four innings a night. Beware.

Even if the Athletics have lost in the first round four consecutive Octobers and have failed to win a potential clinching game, every other team is wary of playing them. One reason for Oakland's playoff failure has been that its three extraordinary starting pitchers haven't all been healthy in October; last year, Mark Mulder was out and Tim Hudson had the bad hip for the second year in a row. So it may be a good thing that Hudson missed time in the regular season this year. Not only that, but this season Rich Harden has been almost as consistent as Mulder, and with his power arm -- in his last start, his final pitch was 97 mph -- he can overpower hitters up and down in the strike zone. Harden also can get Oakland to the eighth inning, which with the A's bullpen -- one reason Barry Zito has so few wins is that his pitch count has forced the bullpen into games in the sixth and seventh innings -- may be necessary unless Ricardo Rincon and Arthur Rhodes have dramatic finishes. Even without Miguel Tejada, this is a far better offensive team than last season. The A's need Kent because of their vulnerability against lefties, but then neither New York nor Boston has a left-handed starter or a left-handed reliever that dominates left-handed batters.

And then there's Texas. The Rangers' on-base percentage is under .300 since the All-Star break, but they keep winning. They haven't had anyone regularly in the rotation besides Ryan Drese and Kenny Rogers, and they continue to win; they won Tuesday, Thursday and Friday this week in games started by Chris Young, Chan Ho Park and John Wasdin. So who's to say they will fade to black? They play really hard, their veterans like Eric Young, David Dellucci and Brian Jordan give them energy and with Frank Francisco, Ron Mahay (.209 vs. lefties), Brian Shouse (.169) and Carlos Almanzar in front of Francisco Cordero, their bullpen matches the Angels'. If they make the playoffs, all they have to do is make it a bullpen game and they can win. You want to tell Michael Young, Hank Blalock or Mark Teixeira that they can't win?

So this is one of those years when anyone could come out of the American League, which makes September and October all the more interesting.

News and notes

  • Reader Bobby Tresca offered this observation per the NL MVP race: On Aug. 27, the difference in OPS between Barry Bonds and Adrian Beltre was one point less than the difference between Beltre and Rey Sanchez.

  • The Dodgers say that Hideo Nomo's velocity has gone from 82-83 to 88-90 on his present rehab, so they hope to have him back winning for the stretch. Edwin Jackson has had command difficulties, while throwing well, and Brad Penny could return to the rotation by mid-September. Which they need. Of course, Penny's return is very iffy, which makes the fact that Jeff Weaver leads the majors in quality starts all the more important. In the last six games through Aug. 27, the LA rotation had an 11.01 ERA.

  • Detroit's home attendance is up almost 50 percent from 2003, and the Tigers are within hailing distance of finishing second. "We know that we are far from a perfect team," says manager Alan Trammell. "But we have made a lot of progress, and the players have never stopped playing hard." There has been a lot of speculation that the Tigers will go after both a front-line starting pitcher (Derek Lowe?) and a big bat (Carlos Delgado or Richie Sexson), but their young rotation of Jeremy Bonderman, Wilfredo Ledezma, Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth has not only shown tremendous potential, but has three left-handers in what is a predominantly right-handed pitching league. "Bonderman has the best swing-and-miss slider in the league," says one AL scout.

  • And the last three weeks Carlos Pena -- whose inconsistencies are defined by following a 6-for-6 day with an 0-for-18 skid -- has started to be more patient and handle the ball in. So, September is important to the Tigers, whether they finish ahead of the Indians and White Sox, or not.

  • Randy Johnson went on waivers Aug. 25, with little hope of making it out of the National League. The Giants claimed Jose Mesa, keeping him from the Cubs, and an interesting bullpen name to watch is Milwaukee's Luis Vizcaino, who went on waivers Aug. 27. Colorado had Shawn Estes and Jeromy Burnitz claimed, but could have deals worked out by Tuesday. Some clubs waited until the end of the month to ask waivers, while teams like the Astros put their players on early; hence, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were pulled back on Aug. 2.

  • The battered, tattered Mets went through an undignified stretch at the end of August without the first four hitters in their regular lineup. Now they have to decide the future of Mike Piazza, which will begin with seeing whether some American League team would take him as a DH if the Mets pick up a large chunk of his $16 million salary in '05.

  • At this point, Joe Borowski's post-surgery velocity hasn't crept much past the mid-80's, so the Cubs aren't counting on him for the stretch. Hence the attempted deal for Mesa. Good news is that Corey Patterson is, in general manager Jim Hendry's opinion, "playing the best he's ever played," .320 with a .925 OPS since the break. Patterson's improvement can be seen in his annual on-base percentage progression:.266, .284, .329, .344.

  • A year ago, Mike Gonzalez was traded to Boston then sent back to Pittsburgh in the aborted deal(s) involving Brandon Lyon. Now? "He's as tough on left-handed batters as any lefty reliever other than Billy Wagner," says a scout. Gonzalez has allowed 21 hits with a 38/5 strikeout/walk ration in 30 1/3 innings, with lefties hitting .191.

  • There has been a lot of conjecture about the Dodgers' chemistry since they traded Paul Lo Duca, but GM Paul DePodesta points to two players who have continually energized that team. "Jose Lima has really done a lot for us in terms of bringing daily energy," says DePodesta. "And I believe that Milton Bradley has brought an edge that has made us a lot better. There has not been a ball on which he has failed to bust his hump going down the line."

  • The first name one hears in managerial speculation is Anaheim bench coach Joe Maddon, with the Blue Jays as well as, if there are changes, the Mets and Mariners.

  • The Indians have moved former No.1 pick Jeremy Guthrie to the bullpen, both because of his inconsistencies and because the reliever free-agent market is so weak. Guthrie hit 94-96 out of the pen in the minors and got a quick callup.

  • It appears increasingly likely that Boston's free-agent priorities are to sign Varitek and Martinez. They are already at $84 million for 12 players for next season, without picking up Alan Embree's $3 million option and before Mark Bellhorn goes to arbitration. Ownership wants to hold close to $110 million in '05, which might be closer to $115 million, but Varitek, Martinez and Bellhorn will likely cost at least $25 million total, which would give the Red Sox $1-6 million for the final nine roster spots, which would include shortstop, as both Orlando Cabrera and Pokey Reese are free agents.

  • Boston players, especially Varitek, believe Arroyo will blossom into a big winner when he gets command of his fastball. "He should have 12 or 13 wins right now," says Lowe. "Those whiffle ball curveballs are unhittable." As Varitek points out, Arroyo changes speeds and arm angles on both of his breaking balls, and gives a look unlike anyone else.

  • Congratulations to Lowell Spinners manager Jon Deeble for taking Australia all the way to the Gold Medal game, where the Aussies were jobbed against Cuba by a brutal mistaken umpire's call.

  • And is there a more compelling team in any sport than the U.S. women's soccer team, especially the Fab Five? Now Julie Foudy can move on toward Nomar Garciaparra's prediction -- president of the United States.