Teams Scramble for Baseball Playoff Slots

Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians steal the show, again

Thirteen days remain in the major-league baseball season. Teams still shopping for a spot in the playoffs know it's now or never. A bobbled ball, a wild pitch, or an untimely strikeout can shatter the hopes and dreams accumulated during 5-1/2 months of hard work.

At least in one respect, the '96 season seems similar to last year's. The Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians again own the best records in their respective leagues. They could meet again in the World Series, which is set to begin Oct. 18 in the American League city. The home field advantage might be just what Cleveland needs to secure its first title since 1948.

The Braves, despite a late-season slump, are looking to join Toronto as baseball's only back-to-back winner during the last 18 years.

Atlanta still has a crack pitching staff. John Smoltz instead of Greg Maddux is the ace this time. Smoltz has been the best in the National League, ringing up a 21-8 record despite a loss in his last outing

Not willing to stand pat, the Braves acquired Denny Neagle, Pittsburgh's best hurler, in a late-season trade. Ironically, Neagle was winless in his first three starts for Atlanta.

The Braves withstood an unusually long midseason road trip, necessitated by the Olympics, which occupied Fulton County Stadium during the Games. The club returned no worse for wear and next year will move into Olympic Stadium, but not until its seating capacity is reduced from 80,000 to 45,000.

Some may have lost track of what was happening in the major leagues, given the Olympics and other summer distractions. The following summary may help to review what has transpired in the first full season since 1993 and how the races shape up:

American League races

No one has mathematically clinched a division title, but Cleveland and Texas are virtually assured of doing so in the Central and West. Although the Indians aren't likely to notch 100 wins, as they did last year in just 144 games, they clearly possess winning instincts. They have won 18 games in their last at-bat.

Confidence is no longer a problem in Cleveland. It could be for wither-prone Texas, though. The Rangers have never reached the postseason in 24 years of trying. However, they entered this week's four-game season with Seattle, enjoying a comfortable six-game division lead over the Mariners.

The Yankees are holding on for dear life to the lead in the remaining division, the East. After once leading by 12 games on July 29, they've seen the Baltimore Orioles, who come to the Bronx for a crucial three-game series that begins tonight, almost erase this margin. This has generated sparks between Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and general manager Bob Watson, who has acted as a fire wall between Steinbrenner and field boss Joe Torre.

A veteran manager completing his first season in pin stripes, Torre isn't pushing the panic button. To help relax his team after a recent skid, he told his players he didn't want to see them in the clubhouse until right before the next game. One bright spot throughout the campaign is pitcher Andy Pettitte, who made the All-Star team in only his second season, and has become the club's first 20-game winner since Ron Guidry in 1985.

The race to decide the AL wild card (best team among the non-division winners) appears to be between Baltimore and the Chicago White Sox. Baltimore did as much off-season dealing as any other team to build a contender, yet floundered for a while. Of late, however, they have been one of the hottest teams, getting a lift from the return of designated hitter Eddie Murray, who began his career with Baltimore in 1977 and recently played for Cleveland. Todd Zeile has also had an impact, batting .400 as an Oriole.

Baltimore completed its season series with Chicago last week, with the White Sox snapping a five-game Oriole winning streak with a victory in the series finale. Chicago's Frank Thomas is having another big year at the plate (.341 batting average, 35 homers through Sunday) and is joined by Robin Ventura and Harold Baines in generating a lot of runs in the middle of the lineup.

National League races

Atlanta is the only NL team that appears a lock for a division title, yet even the mighty Braves have looked unusually vulnerable recently. Colorado swept them last week during a three-game series in Denver. Still, Atlanta is not likely to squander a comfortable lead over Montreal in the East.

In the Central and West, however, the division races are as tight as a drum. The latter race is liable to be decided in a season-ending freeway series, when the San Diego Padres host the Los Angeles Dodgers for southern California bragging rights and, in all likelihood, the division title.

Central rivals St. Louis and Houston are involved in their own down-to-the-wire race, only they have no head-to-head games remaining. St. Louis plays everybody else in the Central during the final two weeks, and given the Cardinals' 29-11 record against division opponents, the situation looks promising. St. Louis enjoys good balance in its pitching staff, which is led by the Benes brothers, Andy and Alan.

The Astros have played all season wondering where home will be next year. Ownership has threatened to move the club if attendance doesn't reach 2 million. There are signs, however, that a new stadium might be built that would keep the team in Houston.

If the season had ended Sunday, San Diego would have grabbed the wild-card berth. A lot could happen to change that, however.

NOTABLES IN A SEASON OF HOME RUNS

This has been the Year of the Home Run in major-league baseball. Long balls have rained into the cheap seats. Playing a full 162-game season for the first time since 1993, of course, helps boost slugging output. But the real reasons most often cited for the record downpour are poor pitching, smaller ballparks, more muscular hitters, and a suspected livelier ball. Whatever the reasons, there's no denying the evidence. A sampling follows:

* Most overall home runs in a season: Florida's Gary Sheffield broke the old mark from 1987, when he hit the season's 4,459th homer on Sept. 9.

* Most home runs by a team: The Baltimore Orioles used five home runs on Sunday to bring their season total to 243, moving ahead of the 1961 Mantle-Maris Yankees, who belted 240 without benefit of a designated hitter. Baltimore has nine players in uniform who've collected 20 or more homers, a major-league record. The Oakland A's are poised to move past the '61 Yankees as well. On Saturday Mark McGwire, Oakland's first baseman, became only the 13th player in major-league history to reach 50 homers, and this while playing in only 119 games.

* Numerous individual slugging surges: Players far surpassing their previous best home-runs season include Baltimore's Brady Anderson (46 vs. 21), Colorado's Ellis Burks (38 vs. 21) and New York Mets catcher Todd Hundley (41 vs. 16). Hundley broke Roy Campenella's single-season record for catchers on Saturday.

* Ruthian effort: If Albert Belle hits 50 homers (he has 46), the Cleveland outfielder will join Babe Ruth as the only other player to reach that milestone in consecutive seasons.

* Leap in tape-measure homers: Hits of 460 feet or longer have nearly doubled during the past year according to a group that charts their distance.

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