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Seattle-Cleveland Playoff Shapes Up as a Classic

WITH its four-games-and-out exit from the National League Championship Series, the Cincinnati Reds have removed any possibility for an all-Ohio (Cincinnati-Cleveland) World Series. That's probably for the overall good, because Cincinnati's heart wasn't really in baseball this season, judging from the empty seats in Riverfront Stadium during the pennant-deciding showdown with Atlanta. By bowing out early, the Reds cleared the stage for an American League series that is shaping up as a classic.

Cleveland held on through a tense fifth game Sunday night to take a 3-2 lead over the Seattle Mariners and send both teams on a red-eye flight across the country for a sixth and possibly seventh game in Seattle. Based on what happened during the first round of postseason play, when Seattle won three straight home games to erase an 0-2 deficit and eliminate the New York Yankees, Cleveland must realize its toughest assignment may be applying the finishing touches to the never-say-surrender Mariners.

The quick ending to the Atlanta-Cincinnati series means that those TV viewers who were shut out from seeing Seattle-Cleveland, except for brief cut-ins, can devote their undivided attention to a series that deserves it. The Atlanta Braves, no doubt, will be among those watching what happens in Seattle's Kingdome. They await the winner in the World Series, which starts Saturday.

The thought of a nation hanging on the outcome of a Cleveland-Seattle series seems almost laughable, or at least it would have seemed so several years ago when the Indians were synonymous with losing and the Mariners were clueless. Now Cleveland has the best team in baseball and is determined to make its first World Series appearance since 1954. The Mariners, meanwhile, have converted Seattle into the type of baseball city Cincinnati normally is. If the meat of the Mariner lineup - Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and company - can regain its clutch-hitting form, Seattle could send this series to a suspense-orama seventh game on Wednesday.

Boston teams rise - and fall rapidly

PERHAPS Boston's collective sports funk began when pugilist Peter McNeeley lasted only 89 seconds in his bout against heavyweight Mike Tyson on Aug. 19. Sending Bostonians into true despair, though, is the joint demise of baseball's Red Sox and football's New England Patriots.

Cleveland swept the Red Sox in first-round playoff action, stretching a postseason losing streak that dates to 1986 to 13 games. The heart of Boston's batting order, Mo Vaughn and Jose Canseco, went 0-for-the-series, leaving 17 base-runners stranded in 27 at-bats over three games.

The Patriots' collapse has been just as jarring. A year ago, rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe appeared to have the team on a fast-track to respectability, if not the Super Bowl. New England made the playoffs for the first time since 1986, won its last seven regular-season games, and entered this season as the divisional co-favorite with Miami. But since a last-minute victory over Cleveland in the opener, the Patriots have plummeted to 1-5, scored a league low 69 points, and taxed Coach Bill Parcells's patience at almost every turn.

The Boston Bruins have mercifully managed a hockey win in their new arena, the FleetCenter, but in Dallas Saturday night they lost 5-4 when the Stars scored three goals in the final 48 seconds. The Celtics don't open their season until November, but many observers forecast a bleak basketball campaign.

Touching other bases

*Pop quiz: Where is Major League Soccer, the new league that begins play next spring, based? (Answer at end.)

*Many college football watchers probably doubted they would ever see Northwestern contend for a Rose Bowl berth. With a come-from-behind victory over Minnesota on Saturday, the Wildcats are now 5-1, No. 11 in the nation, and own impressive road wins over Michigan and Notre Dame. But their schedule doesn't call for them to play undefeated Ohio State, which, with a better overall record, could assure itself a trip to Pasadena, Calif., by winning its last five games.

*Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam found a perfect way to cap a marvelous year. The US Open champion rallied from three strokes behind Sunday at the World Championship of Women's Golf in South Korea to tie Laura Davies in regulation play. Then she sank a 40-foot chip shot on the first extra hole for the win.

*Given today's safety-conscious society, it seems odd that baseball's box-seat occupants are allowed to sit so close to the field with no protection. Fans simply can't react quickly enough to screaming foul balls at that range.

*Quiz answer: Los Angeles.

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