Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hard Hits: Fitting Conclusion This Weekend At Fenway

In as unpredictable a baseball season as there's been, the Yankees and Red Sox are still there. Only this time plenty could be on the line when the Bronx Bombers meet Boston for three games at Fenway Park. That's because the Indians have not gone away. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, Cleveland and Boston are tied for the wild card at 93-66. The Yanks lead their archrivals by one game.

It all comes down to this. If the Yankees can take two of three from the Red Sox, not only would they clinch the AL East but potentially knock out the defending World Series champions out of October. It might not make up for last year's historic ALCS collapse but if they eliminate Boston on their home field, it would have to be extra special considering how their year ended in 2004.

The Indians will host the AL Central champion White Sox for a three-game series, knowing that they must take care of business to give themselves a chance. With Chicago clinching at Detroit Thursday, it could help Cleveland this weekend. The Indians have played great down the stretch but lost three of four to Tampa Bay. If they win their games, then the Yankees or Red Sox are in trouble.

There's also this. If all three teams finish tied, the Yanks host the Sox for the division and the loser then plays Cleveland for the wild card. Pretty nervewracking.

How it will shake down nobody can predict. The Yanks are relying on rookie Chien-Ming Wang to get them off to a good start in the opener against ex-Bomber David Wells. A lot could hinge on who wins this game. If Boston can, they could carry momentum over for the weekend. But if the Yanks take it, it puts the pressure on Boston to win out and force a one-game playoff at Yankee Stadium Monday.

The rest of the weekend goes like this: Randy Johnson takes on Tim Wakefield Saturday. If the teams split the first two games, it all comes down to Sunday when Mike Mussina faces Curt Schilling. Could it possibly end any other way?

While it will be as exciting a finish in recent memory, the AL MVP race could also be decided. Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz have been neck and neck all year. Rodriguez has played a Gold Glove calibre third in the second half, which gives him an edge in the field because Ortiz has only played 10 games at first. In the 10 games, he hit .326 with four long balls and seven RBI's.

Both enter tied with an AL-leading 47 homers. But Ortiz has a major league leading 146 RBI's including a tying homer in the eighth and winning RBI single in the ninth Thursday night for Boston's come-from-behind 5-4 win to stay a game back of New York. A night earlier, Rodriguez tied a game against Baltimore with a homer, helping the Yanks win 2-1.

So, who is MVP? Ortiz has now hit at least 20 dingers that tied or put his team ahead. Since his ALCS MVP performance in which he slugged three dingers and drove in 11, Big Papi has been about as automatic in clutch situations as anyone. He is hitting an astounding .348 with seven homers and 90 RBI's with runners in scoring position (RISP). With two outs, he's even better hitting .357 with five homers and 33 RBI's. With the bases loaded, Ortiz has hit .400 with two grand slams and 20 RBI's. To put in perspective how clutch he is, Ortiz is hitting .285 with the bases empty. That's 63 points lower than how he does with RISP.

A-rod has been terrific in his second season in Pinstripes. With his 47th dinger Wednesday at Camden Yards, he eclipsed Joe DiMaggio's Yankee record for most homers by a righty. DiMaggio hit 46 back in 1937.

Rodriguez has a higher average than Ortiz, hitting .320 to Ortiz' .298. Rodriguez is in contention for a batting title. His 129 RBI's place him third in the AL behind Ortiz and Sox teammate Manny Ramirez, who has 138 after hitting a key two-run homer for his 42nd of the year to start Boston's comeback Thursday.

A-rod also has stolen 20 bases. He's done well in key situations, hitting .290 with nine dingers and 77 RBI's with RISP and hit .302 with five homers and 38 RBI's with RISP with two out. Rodriguez has also hit .438 with one grand slam and 20 RBI's with the bases loaded. While he's excelled in those situations, unlike Ortiz, Rodriguez hits 48 points higher with the bases empty (.338) than with RISP.

So, who wins? Some might have A-rod ahead due to his reliable defense at third while others could have Ortiz in front due to his propensity to come up with the big hit late in games. It all depends on who you prefer.

Still undecided? Ortiz also has 11 homers and 28 RBI's in September while Rodriguez has seven dingers and 24 RBI's. Rodriguez also has scored four more runs than Ortiz- 121-117. It's that close.

What should be remembered though is that this series finale is not A-rod versus Big Papi. It's two bitter rivals going against each other one more time, trying to get into the postseason this time because Cleveland could knock one of them out.

Who will come through? Will A-rod, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada be big or will Big Papi, Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek, Edgar Renteria and Bill Mueller be money? Or will the offense come from a secondary source like Rookie of the Year Candidate Robinson Cano in Pinstripes or Boston's John Olerud?

Which starters will do the job? Is this the weekend the Big Unit earns his paycheck or does Curt Schilling recreate another bloody sock image?

Can Tom Gordon and super closer Mariano Rivera be lights out? And who closes for Boston? Mike Timlin, injured Keith Foulke or even the rookie out of St. John's Craig Hansen? How ironic would it be if Alan Embree or Mike Stanton come through for either team? Both started the year on the other side.

It's all on the line this weekend. What better drama could you ask for?


Hitting Back:

-Nobody talks about it but not once have Yankee fans serenaded A-rod with 'MVP' chants like Boston with Big Papi. Funny but last year, Gary Sheffield got those same chants.

-Where would the Yanks be without Aaron Small? He is now a perfect 10-0 and won his fifth straight start Thursday at Baltimore. Who would have thought that before the season Small along with Wang and Shawn Chacon would be the big contributors in the Yankee rotation? Maybe Brian Cashman deserves some credit.

-Nobody talks about it but if A-rod and Ortiz weren't so far ahead, the Indians Travis Hafner would be getting MVP consideration. So too should Mariano Rivera. Without him, it doesn't matter how much offense they have. They would have been finished a long time ago.

-Very quietly, the Mets are having a nice finish to the season. Kudos to Willie Randolph for keeping his young ball club motivated after such an awful beginning to September. David Wright continues to look like a future MVP candidate and Jose Reyes continues to tear up the base paths. The Mets look to have a very bright future.

-To my colleague Mark Healey. Forget bringing in Lou Piniella to Shea. Randolph has done a good job with the Mets. While it's true he didn't always make the right decisions, what manager does? It was his first season. Even with Mike Piazza out for a stretch and no productive first baseman or second baseman on the roster, Randolph's Mets played hard. If you asked a Mets fan before the season if they would take a season over .500, they'd have been delighted.

-Is Giambi still done?

-Piazza has been great for the Mets since he was acquired over seven years ago from Florida. He made the Amazins important again in New York and even given fans some exciting playoff moments. Sunday at Shea, those fans should give Mike a great sendoff as should the ball club.

-On the other side, this could also be Bernie Williams final weekend in Pinstripes. Nobody has handled things better. When it was apparent he didn't have the same legs or glove and the Yanks forced him to the bench, Williams never got upset. Instead, he kept the same approach and turned out to be the best option in center. If Sunday is his final game as a Yankee, nobody will ever forget him.

-When I saw Chad Pennington struggle in the preseason against the Giants, I knew the Jets were in trouble.

-Pennington is a classy athlete who is a great team guy and deserved a better break than reinjuring his bum shoulder last Sunday against Jacksonville. Now, he faces an uphill battle to comeback. No quarterback has ever returned from two torn rotator cuffs. If anyone can do it though, it's Chad.

-Did Herm Edwards ever consider that he should have been more authoritative and not let Pennington return?

-When's the last time a team lost two QBs in one game? But as WFAN's Joe Benigno might point out, it can only happen to the Jets.

-Eli Manning showed a lot of composure at San Diego last Sunday night. Is that why the defense took the game off?

-Coach Coughlin can talk all he wants about how it was important to get points on the board early, opting for a field goal instead of going for fourth and inches. But in this town, that playing not to lose approach just won't cut it.

-Rafael Palmeiro now has less credibility than Barry Bonds and Donald Fehr. Bet you before the season, nobody saw that one coming.

-I love boxing but this Roy Jones-Antonio Tarver trilogy is all wrong for Jones. Jones has nothing to prove and got knocked out by Tarver in the rematch, then was out unconscious by Glen Johnson in his last fight. Does he want to end up like Leavander Johnson?

-So glad to have the Rangers back. What can I say? Pain and torture are things I seem to like.

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