Welcome to the final week. It should be an incredible one in the American League, where all four playoff positions remain undecided and two monster head-to-head matchups are slated to begin Friday night. That's a stark contrast to the National League, where the Cardinals have wrapped up the Central Division while the Braves and Padres need only to avoid catastrophic collapses to finish their titles.
The schedule makers certainly did their part to keep the drama flowing in the AL. The Indians are off Monday, then spend the final six days at home (against the Devil Rays and White Sox). Meanwhile, the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Angels and Athletics will all be playing every day.
A look at what's coming up:
Yankees at Red Sox (Friday-Saturday-Sunday)
The Yankees would like nothing better than to clinch a division that the Sox had control of all year right on the fabled Fenway lawn, especially after last year's collapse in the American League Championship Series. The Yankees are playing their best ball of the season at the perfect time. Their lineup remains lethal, while their starting pitching and defense have been improving. They're tough to beat if the middle relievers help bridge the gap to Mariano Rivera.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, are a mess. With so many banged-up players and with a tattered bullpen, they'd already be done if not for David Ortiz's huge season. The team announced Thursday closer Keith Foulke (knee/shoulder) won't be back this season, and that leaves Mike Timlin to head what's easily the shakiest bullpen among the contenders.
"You'll always be judged by your bullpen," manager Terry Francona said earlier this month before a game in Toronto. "But it's unfair, both good and bad. If you send a pinch hitter up and it doesn't work, you don't hear anything. Make another pitching change, it goes haywire and you hear it.
"If your bullpen gives up runs, it's no good. If you stay with your starter too long and he gives up runs, that's no good, either. If you don't know what to do, it just means you're not good enough."
White Sox at Indians (Friday-Saturday-Sunday)
Cleveland fans have long pegged this to be an important series, but no one thought it would have any bearing on the division race. This was supposed to be all about the wild card. Now all of a sudden, manager Eric Wedge's Tribe has a legitimate chance to complete the greatest comeback in baseball history at home by overcoming a 15-game deficit in the final two months.
Division leaders almost all season, the White Sox and the Red Sox may miss the playoffs entirely -- with the red-hot Indians perhaps stealing the Central Division or almost certainly having at least 95 wins to claim the wild card.
Angels at Athletics (Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday)
It's last-stand time for the A's, who watched the Angels clinch the AL West last year at McAfee Coliseum and might be forced to do likewise in 2005.
Giants at Padres (Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday)
The Giants are in the same boat as the A's. This is their last chance to try to climb into the race, but it's an unlikely proposition. Instead, they're probably going to be watching the Padres celebrate. The big quest for San Diego is to finish better than 82-79, the record of the '73 Mets that stands as the worst in history for a division winner.
Phillies at Nationals (Friday-Saturday-Sunday), Cubs at Astros (Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday)
These are the sets that will decide the NL wild card. The Astros can focus on baseball after getting a scare from Hurricane Rita.
Astros officials had quietly spent the last few days exploring alternate sites for the crucial series if there was damage to Minute Maid Park, but it sustained none. One possibility was the Dell Diamond outside Austin. It's the home of Houston's Triple-A team, the Nolan Ryan-owned Round Rock Express.
> Fit to be tied?
If the Yankees and Red Sox finish tied for the AL East title, they won't be able to restage their epic 1978 playoff in Fenway. That's because New York won a coin toss to have the tiebreaker game played in Yankee Stadium. The Indians were the big winners in the flips, getting all potential games (against the White Sox for the division and the A's and Yankees for the wild card) lined up for Jacobs Field.
The Red Sox were not involved in flips with the Indians or Oakland for the wild card, but those are expected to be done this week.
The Athletics were big losers if things end up tied. They lost all three flips with the Angels, Indians and Yankees, marking the third straight year they had lost multiple flips. Said manager Ken Macha: "All I know is that the coin flip is done in the commissioner's office and no one hears it drop. I'd like someone to figure out the odds of losing nine straight coin flips. . . . That is impossible."
> Nice touch by Fish
The Marlins re-signed utility man Mike Mordecai to a September contract so he could get the 10 service days he needed to qualify for his 10-year pension. Mordecai, best known for his three-run double in Game Six of the 2003 NLCS at Chicago, had retired as a player in the spring and spent the summer managing the Jamestown Jammers to a 31-44 record in the New York-Penn League.
"Patience is a virtue I had to use all year," Mordecai told the Palm Beach Post. "You have to have a lot of patience as a minor-league manager. If you don't, you're going to blow a gasket."
"You really don't hear things about something like this," said Jamestown GM Matt Drayer. "It shows what kind of guy Mike is on and off the field that the Marlins think that highly of him to give him that kind of opportunity."
> Herd through grapevine
* Pitcher Jason Stanford's comeback from Tommy John surgery hit a big bump last week when he was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after an incident in Cleveland's Warehouse District.
Stanford reportedly was involved in an altercation with another man and bumped a police officer who tried to intervene. He was released on bail but compounded the problem by missing his court date, saying he thought it was on a different day. A warrant was issued for Stanford's arrest, but he showed up in court Wednesday and entered a not guilty plea.
The left-hander took the loss for the Bisons in Game Five of the International League semifinals against Indianapolis and has played in Buffalo for parts of the last five seasons. He spent the winter of 2002-03 working at a deli in Main Place Mall.
* Trivia time: Who's the only player in the big leagues this season with at least 100 runs, 30 doubles, 20 homers, 20 steals and 10 triples? It's Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore, who had the first five-hit game of his career Thursday in Kansas City. And to think, he was ticketed to start the season in Buffalo while the Tribe was foolishly flirting with an over-the-hill Juan Gonzalez.
* Have you seen the smooth-talking new analyst on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight"? It's Orestes Destrade, the first baseman/designated hitter who was a standout for the Bisons' 1988 team that opened then-Pilot Field. Destrade, whose best big-league moments came in 1993 and 1994 in the Marlins' first two seasons, remains the only Bison to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game downtown. He did it in 1988 against Tidewater.