Who'll win? Look for the best pitching

The field was a crisp green, and the sun spent the better part of the afternoon struggling to fight through the clouds. It was opening day for the New York Mets, Day 1 in a season of great expectations.

There was Roberto Alomar, the quintessential second baseman, a player who can hit with consistency and field as well as anyone who's ever patrolled the right side of the infield. Nearby was Mo Vaughn, the jumbo-sized slugger who looks good in any lineup. And, of course, there was the one who is impossible to ignore, the catcher, Mike Piazza, who is the cornerstone of this organization.

On this day, however, Alomar, Vaughn, and Piazza didn't add up to much. They combined for only 2 hits in 13 at-bats.

But it didn't really matter. The Mets easily won, 6-2, over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Once again, as it almost always does, pitching carried the day. Al Leiter was solid for six innings, giving up only one run on four hits. He wasn't brilliant; he was good enough. "I'll take it," he said, after the game.

Let that be a lesson. Hitters are nice, but pitchers are essential. Even on a so-so day. "We know we are a good team this year," said third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo. "But we'll need good pitching to make it through the season. It's a long season."

Every year, teams desperately try to rely on hitting to win. The Mets are a case in point, as are the Boston Red Sox and the Texas Rangers. This year, the Mets stacked their batting lineup to make it one of the most formidable in the game – after being one of the worst last year. But they did perhaps too little to solidify their starting rotation and bullpen.

The Mets' rotation, like most in Major League Baseball, is full of question marks. Other than Leiter, who's at times inconsistent and injury-prone (he was 11-11 last year), the Mets will have to count on guys like Steve Trachsel, Shawn Estes, Pedro Astacio, and Jeff D'Amico (a combined 30-39 last year) to carry them through the summer. The Mets closer, Armando Benitez, can throw the ball more than 100 miles per hour, but he has a tendency to self-destruct in the big games.

It's not for a lack of effort. With a $102 million payroll, the Mets went out this off-season and signed Estes and Astacio. But there are simply too few quality pitchers to go around.

In 2002, the teams that will probably win the most games are the teams with the best pitchers. It's a simple – but often overlooked – formula.

Last year, in a memorable post-season, it was the Arizona Diamondbacks who won the World Series on the strength of their two aces, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. Both are back this year, albeit a year older on an aging club.

But both are bulldogs, and if anything their staff has been bolstered by the additions of starter Rick Helling and the gritty Todd Stottlemyre, who didn't pitch last season because of injury. The biggest challenge for Arizona could be making it through the regular season, when they need five starting pitchers. In a playoff series, they can get by with three.

Of course, the New York Yankees, with the addition of slugger Jason Giambi, should once again be a powerhouse. The ironic problem they've had this spring is deciding how to make room for all the arms on their veteran staff, including Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, David Wells, and Orlando Hernandez (who barely won the last spot in a five-man rotation). And they brought in a great relief pitcher, Steve Karsay, to compliment closer Mariano Rivera, who, despite losing Game 7 of last year's World Series, is still the best in the business.

Two teams in the American League West should be able to challenge the Yankees for a trip to the World Series. One is the Seattle Mariners, who may not be as good as they were last year – when they won 114 games – because they lost a reliable starting pitcher in Aaron Sele. But they still have a potent lineup, including the most exciting player in the game, Ichiro Suzuki, and solid pitching, featuring Freddy Garcia and the ageless Jamie Moyer.

The Oakland Athletics, likewise, could be slightly worse, having lost their leader and best hitter, Giambi. But their young starting pitching is phenomenal, and, with another year of experience, may even be enough to put them over the hump.

The National League is much more wide open, with each division having at least two strong teams to challenge for the pennant. In the East, the Atlanta Braves added outfielder Gary Sheffield to boost a weak lineup and provide more runs for some familiar pitching names: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. The Mets, despite their deficiencies, will be tough, as will the Florida Marlins, who have a set of strong, young arms that may still be a few years away.

The National League Central should belong to the St. Louis Cardinals, who have balance, starting pitching, and one of the best managers in the game, Tony La Russa. For them to win, they need another strong year from last year's rookie of the year, Albert Pujols, who seemed almost too good to be real. The Cards may face a challenge from the Houston Astros, who have a young pitching staff, a first-year manager in Jimy Williams, and their veteran anchors, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.

In the NL West, Arizona could be challenged by the San Francisco Giants. The Giants don't seem to have the pitching to go the distance, but they do have a guy named Barry Bonds, who has his eyes on the World Series. He hit two home runs on opening day Tuesday and two more the next day. After what we saw from him last year, nothing's impossible.

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