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Baseball and Pennant Races

   by Bryan Leonard - 10/01/2005

All eyes may be on Fenway park this weekend for the climatic final pennant chase in the American League. However, the Indians are also in the thick of it, playing three games against the White Sox, a team that has no reason to play. This has been one of the most eventful endings to a baseball regular season in years, with much at stake, even though there are only a few days remaining in the regular season. Every now and then there are one-game playoffs that are required to decide who advances to the postseason. The Indians and Red Sox played one in 1948, the Yankees and Red Sox in 1978, and the Angels and Mariners in 1995. They are rare, but there is the possibility of one on Monday, if the Yankees and Red Sox tie, and possibly one for the Indians.

Instead of assessing how the pennant may wind up, let's examine which teams have the edge after the pennant races are done, with the playoffs beginning in a few days. In 2004, the top two teams in the NL in pitching were the Braves and Cardinals, with St. Louis evenutally making the World Series. In 2003, the Yankees were third in the AL in pitching with a team ERA of 4.02, while the Red Sox were 8th (4.41). The Yankees won Game 7 and advanced to the Series, where they had a better offense, but were upset by the pitching-rich Marlins.

Last season, the Red Sox addressed their pitching weaknesses by trading for Curt Schilling and adding ace closer Keith Foulke. Boston in 2004 finished ahead of the Yankees with a 4.18 team ERA (third in the AL), with the Angels finishing fourth and the Yankees sixth (4.69). Boston won the ALCS in seven games. So is there a predictive pattern emerging? As is almost always the case, pitching often determines who advances.

That's one edge the Cardinals have over everybody else right now. They not only have the best team ERA in the NL, but have been able to rest and adjust their rotation for the playoffs. Houston doesn't have as good an offense as a year ago, but their pitching has carried them, ranked second in team ERA (3.53). Is another Cardinals/Astros NLCS in the cards? With those deep pitching staffs, it wouldn't be a surprise to see one or both make it that far -- again.

In the AL, the Yankees and Red Sox are not as formidable as in year's past because of suspect pitching. New York's team ERA is ninth in the AL (4.49), while Boston has slipped badly to 11th (4.75). The injuries to Foulke and Schilling have taken a huge toll on the Sox, which has been evident with their stumbling staff over the last few weeks. Which brings us to the top pitching staffs in terms of ERA in the American League: Indians (3.62), White Sox (3.65) and Angels (3.68). Clearly, these teams have much better pitching depth then last season, making this a far more wide-open race than in recent years. For those of us sick of rich teams like the Yankees and Red Sox having their way in late October, 2005 has the feeling of a possible changing of the AL guard. If that happens, you can bet pitching will be the key.

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