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September 23, 1999

NL East Notebook

September Showdown

by Joe Sheehan

September Showdown

Six games, ten days, two cities. Three inner-circle Hall of Famers. A division title hanging in the balance.

OK, the safety net of the wild card takes away some of the drama, but these are still some of the biggest regular-season series we've seen in some time. The New York Mets and Atlanta Braves began their best-of-six last night with the Braves clinging to a one-game lead in the NL East, and the Mets carrying a 3 1/2-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds for the wild card.

The two teams are as evenly matched as the standings indicate. The Braves have the best pitching in the league and a middle-of-the-pack offense, while the Mets are fourth in the league in runs (third at sea level) with the fifth-best staff in the NL. The Mets have a great lineup with OBP machines at seven spots, but a spotty rotation. The Braves have a dysfunctional lineup with just two top-tier hitters, but an excellent rotation. Both teams have effective, and deep, bullpens.

The Mets come into the series catching a few breaks. The Braves may be without right fielder Brian Jordan, whose sore right hand has crippled his power (.381 SLG since the All-Star break), anyway. The Mets will also miss seeing Kevin Millwood in the first three-game set. Millwood is the best right-hander in the National League right now, with a 2.41 ERA since May 1. He hasn't given up more than two runs in a start since August 8. He should pitch in next week's series at Shea Stadium.

Those who like to talk about the importance of veterans in situations like these aren't going to be able to find their storyline on the mound. Of the series' six scheduled starters, the youngest is John Smoltz, at 32. Only last night's starter for the Mets, Rick Reed, comes in without at least one World Series ring, and even he's 34 years old. The "veteran intangibles" crowd should remain quiet this week. Mercifully.

I expect these games to be decided late, and in the bullpen. The Braves have shut the Mets out in three of their six meetings this season, but New York's offense is even better now, with the addition of Darryl Hamilton, than it was in June. Atlanta's lineup holes will probably prevent them from taking advantage of the relatively poor Met rotation, which will keep the games close.

So it will come down to the pens, and the benches, and most of all, the luck. When two evenly-matched teams play short series under pressure, the biggest factor of all is the one no one can control. Look for some great baseball in Atlanta and New York over the next ten days.

And try not to think about how much more interesting it all would have been in 1993.

Notes

Dustin Hermanson is healthy again. The Montreal right-hander is finally over the tendinitis that caused him to pitch more like Dustin Hoffman in the first half. Since August 1, Hermanson has an ERA of 2.25 and is averaging just over seven innings per start. Jim Beattie must turn him into a top shortstop prospect (D'Angelo Jimenez?) this winter to continue the Expo rebuilding.... It was good to see the Phillies finally shut Scott Rolen down for the year. The games are meaningless, Rolen is the franchise player and his back problems are going to be helped by rest. Look for Rolen to have a big 2000.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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