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September 5, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Chasing Cleveland

by Joe Sheehan

A week ago, the American League wild-card chase looked like a six-team scramble, with none of the contenders emerging as a favorite. Now, however, we're seeing some separation at both the top and the bottom of the standings.

At the top of the list, the Cleveland Indians have won six of eight games and established a two-game lead over the Boston Red Sox. Their surge has been driven by their offense, which has returned to its 1999 level of performance: the Indians have scored at least five runs in every game since August 26. The causes? Manny Ramirez healthy and playing at his established level and a return to form of the three players--Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar--who hit in front of Ramirez.

At the bottom, the Anaheim Angels had a disastrous weekend in Chicago, giving up 35 runs to the White Sox and getting swept, losing two of the games after leading in the eighth inning. They've slipped under .500 today, losing the first game of what amounts to an elimination series between them and the Detroit Tigers and falling 6 1/2 games behind the Indians.

In between the two extremes, there are four teams separated by three games (GB is games behind Cleveland):

Boston: 71-63, 2 GB. Since August 1, the Red Sox are 6-1 when Pedro Martinez starts, and just 11-14 when other people do. Rolando Arrojo and Tomokazu Ohka have improved the rotation behind Martinez, and will need to continue pitching well if the Sox are to have any chance.

The problem right now isn't the pitching, though, it's the offense, as they showed this weekend by scoring one run over 18 innings against the Mariners. At the end of the day, this is still a two-man team, with some help from Trot Nixon and Brian Daubach and way too much Rico Brogna and Manny Alexander and Dante Bichette.

The Sox have the best chance of any of these teams to help themselves; beginning next Tuesday, they play eight games against the Indians in ten days, including four in 30 hours at Fenway Park September 20 and 21. Those games are their season. Since Pedro can only start two of them (and has, by my count, just five starts left overall), I'm not optimistic about their chances.

Oakland, 72-64, 2 GB. Unlike the rest of these teams, the A's actually have a shot at winning their division. The Mariners' disastrous August has shaved the gap between the two teams to 1 1/2 games, and the A's looked great in winning their last three games in Toronto.

The A's also have a phenomenal schedule from here on out. After two games in Boston this week, they play 20 of their last 24 against below-.500 teams, with the other four games a showdown with the Ms in Seattle September 21-24. They close the last week with the Angels and Rangers at home.

Given the current rosters, the schedule and the expected level of performance, I think the A's have the best chance of the challengers to catch the Indians. That said, I think they have a better chance of catching the Mariners, who at this point have a slightly-worse record than the Tribe and find themselves in real danger of missing the playoffs.

Toronto, 71-66, 3.5 GB An 11-3 stretch had Chris Kahrl and I waving the flag, but they lost three in a row to the A's over the weekend, two by shutout, and look like they're again going to fall short. There's no single cause; they're missing a hitter or two, a starter or two and a reliever or two.

Working against the Jays is their schedule. They don't play a team under .500 until September 22, and have nine games with the Yankees and White Sox before then. If they can somehow emerge from that stretch with a chance, they get a week of Devil Rays and Orioles before closing the season with three games in Cleveland. In a way, they have a simpler goal: stay within three games of the Tribe, and take their chances the final weekend.

Detroit, 69-67, 5 GB. They won't go away, having reached .500, surpassed it and now having caught and passed the Angels. As mentioned a few weeks ago, they have a killer schedule in September; after the Angels leave town, they don't see another non-contender until September 26.

The Tigers do have seven games with the Blue Jays and Red Sox, part of a ten-game stretch beginning this Friday that also includes three with the White Sox. They catch Boston in between their big Indians series, and should miss Pedro Martinez to boot.

I've been wrong repeatedly about the Tigers chances, and I'm not any more optimistic about them now. Because they are so far back, their chance primarily depends on taking at least six, maybe all seven games from the Jays and Red Sox, and even then they may not catch the Indians. By Sunday, we'll have a better idea of whether they're still in this thing.

At the end of the day, the Indians and A's are the two teams playing the best baseball with the most talent. In the scramble for two spots (wild card and AL West title) among them and the Mariners, I think it will be the Tribe and whoever comes out of the A's/Mariners series in first place making it to October.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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