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MLB Wild Card Races Heating Up As Playoffs Approach

By Yong-yi Zhu
COLUMNIST

With the beginning of September come summer’s end, school’s start, and hot baseball playoff races across the country. This season brings two of the most interesting Wild Card races in recent memory, as well as two close division battles.

Division Races

The division race on everyone’s mind around here is in the AL East between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Whether the Red Sox can hold their lead over the Yankees and win the division for the first time since 1995 has no easy answer. The Sox are clicking on offense — in their last 15 games, they have averaged more than six runs per game — but they have also given up a lot of runs.

The Red Sox need Curt Schilling more than they realize — not only to win games, but to finish the games he starts, so the Sox can avoid using an unreliable closer. They will not win another World Championship without Schilling, especially with Mike Timlin as their closer.

The key to this race is whether the Yankees can string together decent starting pitching. Injuries have forced their money-seeking aces to the disabled list, so it’s up to people like Shawn Chacon to lift the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees are still hitting, but not nearly as well as the Red Sox. The Yankees have to stop the bleeding and tighten the race in the East by throwing the ball better.

Another division race of note is the NL Worst (West) where most days, a team with a record below .500 leads the division. My only question here: how can anyone justify sending a team from the NL West to the playoffs when every team in the NL East is above .500?

The AL Wild Card

The AL Wild Card race includes a number of teams. The Oakland A’s and the Anaheim Angels are battling for the AL West lead; the loser will enter the wild card sweepstakes. The Yankees are treading water just to try to make the playoffs. And the Indians, behind a resurgent Bob Wickman, are also trying to win a postseason trip as the Wild Card.

The A’s rely on young starters and veteran leadership. Their most critical players, Barry Zito and Eric Chavez, both of whom have gone through playoff races, must now lead rookies.

The Angels need to hit better. Most pitchers throw around Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero and have their way with the other hitters, who need to step up. Their starting rotation is solid, however, and they are anchored by one of the most talented young closers in the game.

The Indians need to hold it all together. An inexperienced team, they are not really on anyone’s radar; there’s no pressure. The key person for the Indians is their manager, Eric Wedge, who needs to keep them on winning streaks.

The NL Wild Card

The NL Wild Card is basically a race between Houston and the Non-Atlanta teams in the NL East.

The Houston Astros, who have battled back from an awful first half of the season, have the best chance to make the postseason, simply because of pitching. Their three aces, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettite, have destroyed opponents this season. Their key player is third basemen Morgan Ensberg, who has played well all season. If he continues his hot streak, the Astros will most likely play the Braves in early October for a 2004 playoff series rematch.

But the Astros won’t be playing if the NL East has anything to say. The Phillies, Marlins, Mets, and Nationals are all within striking distance.

Of these, the Florida Marlins have the best team. Behind workhorse pitchers Dontrelle Willis, A. J. Burnett, and Josh Beckett, they a rotation comparable to that of the Astros. They also have a consistent closer in Todd Jones. Their pivotal player is first basemen Carlos Delgado, who has only been average.

The Philadelphia Phillies are hanging tough despite losing Jim Thome for the season. With him, they would be the front-runners; instead, they middle of the pack. Their greatest weapon is closer Billy Wagner, but if they don’t take the lead early in games, they won’t get to him. Consistent offensive production is their biggest weakness.

The New York Mets have problems with their starting pitching rotation; they are not sure who besides Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine should start every fifth day.

The Washington Nationals are fading fast. Like the Phillies, their biggest weapon is their closer, Chad Cordero. However, the Nationals have not been hitting lately; at one point, they had through 24 consecutive scoreless innings. I don’t think this team has what it takes to reach the postseason, but they had a nice run.

The ultimate problem for the NL East teams is that they play each other too often, which will likely leaving Houston on top.