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Gammons: No better time than now

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  • Gammons: No better time than now

    No better time than now

    By Peter Gammons

    Sept. 18

    Individual records, historical references in September when there are few team races, are nice. Oh, home run records are SportsCenter headlines and chases at hits or saves or doubles records are wonderful teases, MVP and Cy Young arguments intriguing. But, in the end, what matters are the real races for the eight postseason berths, the races for team, not individual, glory. The races for rings, not plaques.

    Ask any Yankee fan. Since Thurman Munson was the American League MVP in 1976, the Yankees have finished in first place 11 times and have won six World Series titles. The Yankees deal in championships; the awards are for runners-up. The last Yankee MVP was Don Mattingly in 1985, but his team finished second, which was unacceptable.

    So, here we are with two weeks to play in the 2005 season and not one of the four postseason races in the American League has been decided; in fact, there are seven teams left with a serious chance to make the ALDS. The three National League divisional races may be all but wrapped up, but the NL wild-card race is so close that it is a daily emotional roller coaster ride.

    Thirteen teams with a legitimate chance at the playoffs with, in most cases, 13 games to play. Excuse me, but this is a lot better than Ichiro Suzuki's run at a single-season hits record on a last-place team, and an excuse to praise Bud Selig for the combination of the wild card and revenue-sharing that has given us enough parity to make this the best September since 1967, when four of the 10 American League teams went down to the final weekend with a chance to win the pennant.

    No longer is the assumed -- that the shotgun sings the song and the Yankees and Red Sox have to make the playoffs -- assumed. Or the presumed -- the White Sox are the one sure thing -- presumed.

    Here we are with two weeks to go and the Yankees are riding the pitching of 17-year minor- and major-league veteran Aaron Small, the Red Sox are counting on rookie Jonathan Papelbon pitching the eighth inning in front of closer Mike Timlin, the White Sox are closing with rookie Bobby Jenks, the Angels would be playing Maicer Izturis at third base and Oakland would bridge the shortstop gap with Marco Scutaro.

    What makes the parity all the better is that the Indians, A's, Astros and Phillies all once seemed as if their seasons were lost.

    "Sometimes you just get into one of those situations where you attend to each day's game and it turns into a roll," says Oakland manager Ken Macha, who like Indians skipper Eric Wedge has done a remarkable job getting young teams back into the races. At a record of 17-32, Macha wondered if he'd make it past Memorial Day as the A's manager; now he might have a choice of two or three jobs in 2006.

    The Oakland clubhouse is unique. Scott Hatteberg is the key veteran, the ballast. Mark Kotsay, who has four different ice packs and a T-shirt that reads "Old Guys Rule," is one of the veteran presences, along with Jason Kendall and Barry Zito.

    "There is a unique feeling to this team," says shortstop Bobby Crosby, the A's best player who likely will be back at shortstop Tuesday night. "This is a bunch of guys who are baseball rats [do Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson ever leave the clubhouse?]. There is a tremendous sense of humor, which is helped a lot by having [bench coach] Rene Lachemann here. Guys just get along. It's really fun. We love playing baseball, and we'd have to overcome all our injuries."

    Indeed, they probably will play the rest of the season without the league's premier power right-hander, Rich Harden. Crosby has been sidelined for two long stretches, both times with freak injuries. Kotsay is playing hurt, and Bobby Kielty has been out the last two weeks.

    "We may not look great doing it," says Hatteberg, "but this is a very tough team. This was a very tough week, but we got through it." Indeed, the A's played three tough games in Cleveland and got one win over C.C. Sabathia, then played four games in Fenway Park -- their traditional hell -- and split, losing two tough one-run games.

    This is a team that is in the top four in on-base percentage, but has struck out the fewest times of any of the majors' 30 teams. Check the defensive efficiency stats at Baseball Prospectus, and it will show that the A's are the best defensive team, even with Crosby missing so much time. But second baseman Mark Ellis is making a run at the batting title, Jay Payton has found himself, and not even back-to-back walk-off losses Friday and Saturday in Fenway stressed them. On Sunday, the A's were ahead 12-0 before the Red Sox awakened against starter Kirk Saarloos.

    It says something that Kendall, a former All-Star and a well-paid player at that, is singled out by coaches and teammates in a year in which he has been ... well ... statistically awful. "He has been a big part of getting this pitching staff where it is today," says bullpen coach Bob Geren. "He never takes his offense behind the plate. He comes to the park positive every day, expecting to win and play well. He's been phenomenal, no matter what his stats are."

    "This is the worst year of my career, and I know some people have said I'm the worst player in the major leagues," says Kendall. "But this is the most fun I've ever had in my life. We have a chance to win. I get to work with great young pitchers, and be with one of the most incredible bunch of guys that ever were put together. This is fun. I need to find some holes, but winning is everything."

    After trading Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, Oakland's starters' ERA is down three-quarters of a run. "The biggest factor is Barry Zito's leadership," says Kendall. "In spring training, I told him, 'These young guys are watching you. They know you're a Cy Young Award winner.' He accepted that leadership and has been nothing short of great. I think being out of the shadow of the other two guys allowed him to step forward and be what he is."

    Which, other than being one of the league's premier left-handers, is a person who passionately loves the game. "When Danny Haren was 1-7 and struggling, Barry took him under his wing," says pitching coach Curt Young. "He helped all of them."

    Of course, it doesn't hurt to have the rookie of the year, and arguably one of the two best closers in the league in Huston Street. "Nothing ever fazes him," says Kendall of Street. "Earlier in the year, we were in Seattle watching the College World Series in the clubhouse, and he told me he was there last year. I couldn't believe it. He has great stuff, it moves everywhere and he has the great slider, but the biggest thing is that he pitches like a 10-year veteran."

    So much for the notion that the A's and Indians would wilt because of their inexperience. Sabathia and Cliff Lee are a combined 13-1 since Aug. 1 (the team is 33-11 in that time), and Jake Westbrook has been such a horse that he's gone from 2-9 to 15-14 and has stayed in games long enough to have no-decisions in only two starts all season; their starters' ERA in September is 2.11. Bob Wickman, who should easily win the Comeback Player of the Year Award, leads the league in saves and has a streak of 14 straight saves.

    "Their pitching is really good," says Hatteberg. "But they also have really good players. Does anyone realize how good Ronnie Belliard is? Coco Crisp (24 hits, 17 for extra bases in 16 September games)? Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta are two of the best young players in the game, and Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez are tremendous. They have to be the best-balanced team."

    One important factor is that the Indians have taken Wedge's personality -- never high after wins, never low after losses, simply focused on nine hard innings every day.

    So this is as good as it gets. The odds of the White Sox losing four or five out of six games in the final two weeks of the regular season to the Indians is miniscule, but we'll be watching. The Angels beat up on the Tigers, winning three of four games, but the A's went home two games back after playing in Cleveland and Boston and have a chance to win the AL West when the two teams play in Oakland next week.

    The Red Sox are three games from ending their 30-games-in-30-days stretch, when they got so tired that their September on-base percentage was .316, down from .366 the first five months. The Yankees now don't have another day off until the end of the regular season and must wonder not only whether Mike Mussina will come back, but how Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon and Tanyon Sturtze hold up. Then there is the whole Houston/Philadelphia/Florida scrum for the NL wild card.

    Baseball is a game of history and records, but it is also about rings, and with 13 games remaining for most teams, there are more than 400 players who believe by next spring they could be wearing World Series rings.

    Lean free-agent market awaits
    "This will be a wild, expensive free-agent season," predicts one GM. "The talent pool is very thin, and there are a lot of teams with money to spend. Clubs like Detroit, Baltimore, Washington and Tampa Bay may be willing to overpay to get players to come to their cities. The Cubs, Angels, Blue Jays, Mets, Yankees and Red Sox have money. It'll be good to be an agent."

    There may be 15-18 teams looking for starting pitchers, with A.J. Burnett, Kevin Millwood, Matt Morris, Jeff Weaver, Jarrod Washburn, Kenny Rogers and Paul Byrd on the market. The Cubs, Phillies (if they do not re-sign Billy Wagner), Braves, Indians (ditto on Wickman), Diamondbacks, Reds, Mets and Padres (if Trevor Hoffman leaves) -- and perhaps the Red Sox -- will be looking for closers in a market of Wagner, Hoffman, Ugueth Urbina, Kyle Farnsworth, B.J. Ryan and Ryan Dempster.

    Legitimate offensive players will be few and far between -- Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Paul Konerko, Brian Giles Jacque Jones and perhaps even Nomar Garciaparra.

    "There really isn't much there, especially in middle-of-the-lineup producers," says the GM. "If Tampa is smart by marketing Aubrey Huff and one of their young outfielders, Arizona puts Chad Tracy or Conor Jackson out there and Cincinnati makes the right decision on their overstocked outfield, any one of them might be able to make very good trades." Same for Milwaukee with Lyle Overbay or Washington with Nick Johnson or Brad Wilkerson, while Carlos Delgado, Jim Thome, Mike Sweeney, Manny Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and/or Dmitri Young would be tied to moving salaries.

    Looking back at last year's free agents, there were few bargains. David Eckstein turned out to be the best free-agent shortstop, but while Pedro Martinez, Jeff Kent, David Wells, Richie Sexson, Delgado and Millwood did about what they were paid for, there have been some notable disappointments:

    Pitcher, Team 2005 W-L, ERA 2002-04 Avg.
    W-L, ERA
    Pavano, NYY 4-6, 4.77 12-10, 3.99
    Martinez, NYM 15-7, 2.80 17-6, 2.84
    Clement, Bos. 13-5, 4.33 12-12, 3.80
    Wells, Bos. 13-7, 4.39 15-7, 3.88
    Wright, NYY 5-2, 5.37 6-5, 5.03
    Ortiz, Ari. 5-10, 6.88 17-9, 3.85
    Milton, Cin. 7-14, 6.55 9-5, 4.70
    Benson, NYM 9-8, 4.16 9-9. 4.59
    Lowe, LAD 11-13, 3.57 17-9, 4.07
    Perez, LAD 7-7, 4.73 11-9, 3.55
    Lieber, Phi. 15-12, 4.40 7-5, 4.05
    Millwood, Cle. 8-11, 3,02 14-9, 3.93
    Loaiza, Was. 11-10, 3.79 13-9, 4.57

    2005 '02-'04
    Player, Team BA HR RBI OPS BA HR RBI OPS
    Renteria, Bos. .274 7 61 .710 .308 11 83 .802
    Cabrera, LAA .255 7 50 .665 .275 11 66 .734
    Eckstein, St.L. .288 7 55 .748 .276 4 43 .695
    Sexson, Sea. .263 37 110 .932 .273 28 83 .899
    Beltre, Sea. .255 18 80 .712 .278 31 92 .823
    Beltran, NYM .272 15 69 .761 .281 31 103 .889
    Delgado, Fla. .306 31 108 .993 .284 36 113 .964
    Drew, LAD .286 15 36 .932 .283 21 64 .901
    Kent, LAD .295 27 100 .910 .300 29 103 .894
    Ordonez, Det. .317 8 42 .848 .315 25 90 .936
    Glaus, Ari. .264 36 93 .909 .249 21 68 .829
    Alou, S.F. .316 17 54 .899 .283 25 86 .837

    This and that
    • David Ortiz on his extraordinary clutch hitting: "I keep it very simple -- see the ball, [and] hit [it]. I don't think too much, although I will go in and look at video, especially if I've had a couple of at-bats in that game against a pitcher still in the game. I try to reduce it early in the count to pitches I think I can hit. But there's no magic to it. I just love being up there in those situations."

    • It's incredible that the NL West is 69 games under .500 against teams outside the division. And surprising that the AL Central is eight games over .500 against the AL East.

    • But it's not surprising that Eric (Crash Test Dummy) Byrnes often skateboards through the streets of Baltimore to Camden Yards.

    • If Mike Ilitch allows Pudge Rodriguez to get Alan Trammell fired, he should be ashamed, and Tigers fans should be up in arms. It is Rodriguez that is a far broader problem than Trammell. His eight walks and .291 on-base percentage leave him as one of the weakest catchers in baseball.

    • One of the best shows in baseball is the 3-6-3 double play turned by Adam LaRoche and Rafael Furcal, who both throw in the mid-90s. LaRoche is still trying to get Bobby Cox to allow him to be a lefty specialist out of the bullpen, having been well-taught by his father Dave, a former big-league pitcher.

    • Some scouts had wondered if B.J. Ryan's slight decline in velocity might hurt his market value. "Not so," says one scout. "He's not throwing as hard, but he's so funky. [It's] tough to pick up that his fastball seems much harder. And remember, earlier in the year he got abused."

    • Rene Lachemann was a coach in St. Louis when Edgar Renteria played there and says, "[Edgar] has to be hurt and not telling anyone. He's not throwing well, and he doesn't move the same. This guy is a great player, but he'll never say he's hurt, and he'll insist on playing every game."

    • If you don't check out David Pinto's "Baseball Musings," you are missing out on one of the best blogs on the Internet.

    "Can't buy what I want because it's free...
    Can't buy what I want because it's free..."
    -- Pearl Jam, from the single Corduroy

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