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Baseball races head toward dramatic end

You never forget your first pennant race. Mine was in 1967, when I was 12 and newly infatuated with the Red Sox. It was the year of the Impossible Dream, when a young Sox team made an improbable leap from ninth place to first in just one season.

I was too young to realize it at the time, but the '67 race was among the closest in baseball history. With one week to go, four teams (the Red Sox, White Sox, Twins and Tigers) were separated by one game in the American League standings.

The Twins took a one-game lead into Fenway for the final two games. Carl Yastrzemski capped an MVP season by going 7 for 8 as Boston won both. Then New England waited as Detroit, needing a win to force a playoff, lost to the Angels in the second game of a doubleheader. I remember listening to that Tigers game on my radio. The Boston station had picked it up.

There's nothing like the final week of a pennant race. The pressure intensifies with every inning, every pitch, as the calendar flips toward October. It's even more exciting when the teams involved play each other on the last weekend.

This weekend, the game's two tightest races will likely be decided when the teams go head-to-head. The Red Sox host the Yanks for three. The Chisox play three in Cleveland. Four teams. Three playoff berths on the line.

The Indians are the hottest team in the game. Before losing to the Royals on Sunday, they had won 17 of their last 19. They are tied with the Yanks and Red Sox in the loss column. And they're doing it with guys who passed through our town not so long ago. The first five players in the Cleveland lineup played with the Bisons in the last three seasons: Grady Sizemore, Coco Crisp, Jhonny Peralta, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez. Eric Wedge, who managed the Bisons three years ago, will probably be AL manager of the year at 37.

But the Indians are the game's worst nightmare right now. They're threatening to pre-empt baseball's biggest soap opera, its annual autumn ritual -- a third straight Red Sox-Yankees playoff series.

There's a chance the White Sox will hold on to win the AL Central and the Indians will edge out the Red Sox-Yankees loser for the wild card. It would be nice to see Cleveland get in. But a part of me is dying to see another Red Sox-Yankees showdown for the AL pennant. I imagine the TV executives would prefer it to, say, Yankees-Indians or Red Sox-White Sox.

Boston and New York are the most bitter rivals in sports. The Yankees won a memorable ALCS in 2003. The Red Sox made their historic comeback last year. It seemed almost predestined that they would meet for a third time.

But if the Indians don't cooperate, we'll have to make do with a Yanks-Sox miniseries, a three-game set this weekend for a mere playoff berth. The Yankees could miss the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and fail to win the division for the first time in eight years. The Red Sox title defense could expire with a whimper.

Think of the possibilities, though. What if they wind up tied, forcing a one-game playoff on Monday in Yankee Stadium? Could another Bucky Dent be waiting to emerge? And what if the Red Sox fall three games back heading into Friday, needing to beat the Yankees four straight times? Could such a comeback possibly happen?

Of course, the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians could finish with identical records. The Yanks and Red Sox would play a one-game playoff on Monday; then the loser would play the Indians in another one-gamer for the wild card Tuesday (assuming the White Sox win the Central).

The Yanks, Indians, White Sox and Red Sox could all finish tied. Then we'd have a pair of one-game playoffs on Monday to decide the divisional titles, with the losers playing the next day for the wild card.

It should make for an unforgettable week. And people say baseball is boring.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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