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YANKEES WILL WIN AL EAST, BUT RED SOX MAY SCOOP UP THE HARDWARE

Strange thing about baseball. You can almost be too good.

While the New York Yankees have made a shambles of the American League East pennant race almost from Day One, they may also have played themselves out of most of the postseason honors.

It could happen. For example, Joe Torre should be voted manager of the year, hands down, but in the minds of many voters, anybody could manage these Yankees. The same could hold true for David Cone, the Yanks' ace pitcher. Thus far, he's 18-4, which is a remarkable record, but to many voters it's not all that hard to pitch for a team that has a 16-game lead.

On the other hand, you have the Red Sox. Day in and day out, they are not as good as the Yankees. Even the most diehard Sox fan would have to admit that. Well, maybe not.

But the Sox have been the surprise team of the American League and because of it, they could collect most of the postseason hardware.

Most Valuable Player? It would be hard to vote against Nomar Garciaparra, the Sox's multitalented shortstop.

Cy Young Award? Pedro Martinez will be one of the favorites. A few votes might even go to reliever Flash Gordon.

Manager of the Year? Like him or not, Jimy Williams has managed to pull all the right strings.

Comeback Player of the Year? Bret Saberhagen seemingly has a stranglehold on this one.

So there you have it. If you never looked at the standings, you'd swear that the Sox -- and not the Yankees -- were running away with things.

Here's a closer look. Garciaparra, the brilliant shortstop, is almost a lock for MVP.

Sure, you could argue for Juan Gonzalez of Texas or either of Seattle's twin terrors, Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez. And the Yankees have any number of candidates, such as Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill or even Tino Martinez. But all that does is split the vote.

Garciaparra simply has meant more to the Sox. Going into Thursday night's game against the Oakland A's, he was hitting .327 with 30 doubles, 26 homers and 101 runs batted in.

On the field, he has been his exceptional self, reaching balls that mere mortals simply wouldn't get to.

And here's perhaps the telling statistic of all: When he was sidelined earlier this year with a shoulder ailment, the Sox were 8-9. With him, they have been an imposing 70-44 entering the weekend. Not even Mo Vaughn, the acknowledged inspirational leader, has meant as much.

The battle for the Cy Young award looks like a four-way fight among Martinez, the Yankees' Cone and David Wells and the former Bostonian, Roger Clemens.

Clemens has been hot lately. He has won 11 in a row and stuck out 18 Kansas City Royals in his last outing. He's currently 16-6.

Wells has the best winning percentage of anybody with a 16-2 record and his perfect game against the Royals has to mean something. However, his earned run average of 3.36 is not all that imposing.

It's the same with Cone. He's 18-4 but his ERA of 3.58 is only ninth-best in the American League.

Which brings us to the Sox' Martinez. He has done just about all that a starter can do for the Sox. He's 17-4 and he owns victories over all of the Sox's toughest rivals, the Yankees, Indians, Rangers and Orioles. He has broken several Sox losing streaks and his ERA is the best in the American League at 2.73.

The manager of the year balloting looks like a three-man struggle among Torre, Williams and Anaheim's Terry Collins.

Justice says that Torre should win it easily. He has kept a very team motivated all season long.

A recent four-game losing streak has been their only "prolonged" slump of the season. Then there is this: Torre knows that the regular season is now meaningless in the eyes of their fans.

On the other hand, both Williams and Collins have had the luxury of managing teams from which little was expected.

That is especially true in Williams' case. The Sox were no better than a consensus third-place pick in the AL East and many people had them fourth or fifth.

Yet, somehow Williams has managed to get the ultimate production out of just about everybody on the team. He has platooned people like Darren Bragg and Damon Buford and made it work. Same with the catchers, Scott Hatteberg and Jason Varitek. None of them are household names, but it has all worked out.

He has also managed to get the most out of his pitchers behind Martinez. Saberhagen and Tim Wakefield have flourished and Gordon has turned into probably the best relief pitcher in the league.

It all adds up to votes for Jimy Williams. Now all the Sox have to do is win the playoffs and the World Series.

Kerry on

Overshadowed by Sammy Sosa's 53 home runs was Wednesday's return to dominance of Chicago Cubs' pitcher Kerry Wood. The rookie right-hander struck out 16 Cincinnati Reds in a 9-2 victory. It was Wood's first win since July 31 and his highest strikeout total since fanning a record 20 Houston Astros on May 6.

The performance returned Wood (12-6) to the forefront of the National League Rookie of the Year race, where Colorado's Todd Helton had been quietly but steadily gaining ground. Helton (.312-21-84) has overtaken Arizona's slumping Travis Lee, and now leads NL rookies in batting average, home runs and RBIs. But Wood leads in pitching wins and is only 30 strikeouts behind Philadelphia's Curt Schilling in the NL strikeout race, despite not making his season debut until April 12.

Wood, 21, has matched Mike Harkey (1990) for the most wins by a Cubs rookie. He needs just three strikeouts to break the Cubs' rookie record of 225, set in 1901 by Tom Hughes. And he is a huge part of the Cubs' status as wild-card contenders.

"If Kerry Wood is on a winning team, he probably deserves (the rookie award)," Colorado manager Don Baylor conceded. "But Todd has definitely made a statement."

What it's all about

San Francisco's Shawon Dunston was overcome with emotion Thursday after hitting a home run against the Mets that prompted 5-year-old son Shawon Jr. to rush toward home plate and greet his dad with a hug. Dunston's son was in uniform as a Giants bat boy.

"I just wanted to cry," the Giants infielder said. "That was probably the greatest moment of my career as an individual."

Great again

Atlanta pitchers have four weeks left to challenge their best ERA of the 1990s, the 3.14 mark set in 1992 and matched in 1993.

Atlanta's staff ERAs in this decade:
YearW-L ERA
199065-974.58
199194-683.49
199298-643.14
1993104-583.14
199468-463.57
199590-543.44
199696-663.52
1997101-613.18
*199889-463.36
*Through 135 games

Waiting wells

Classes start Tuesday at Baylor, where pitcher Kip Wells is threatening to return for his senior season if the Chicago White Sox don't improve on their reported $1.17 million offer to this year's 16th overall draft pick.

"Where are the Sox on appraising talent?" asked Wells' father, Robert. "Are they asleep? I respect the fact that they're running a business and trying to spend as little as possible, but I believe they're trying to buy my boy's talent at a dramatically low price."

White Sox general manager Ron Schueler disagrees, noting that last year's 16th pick, Rice slugger Lance Berkman, signed with Houston for $1 million.

"I'm not going to overpay," Schueler said. "There have been other guys who have made some stupid signings. I'm not going to be one of them."

And what if Wells returns to school, costing the Sox his draft rights? "I hope he studies hard," Schueler said.

Cerebral soothing

Cardinals' outfielder Ray Lankford was held out of the starting lineup Wednesday for the first time since June 30. Lankford, who wound up pinch-hitting in the ninth and playing one inning of defense, explained his absence by saying, "My mind is sore."

Heal thyself

With Arizona pitching coach Mark Connor too ill to remain in the dugout during a game last week, Diamondbacks' manager Buck Showalter found himself short a key aide.

So when lefty Brian Anderson was in a tight spot, Showalter jogged to the mound and asked, "What would Mark say in a situation like this?" Anderson responded, and Showalter jogged back to the dugout.

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