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Baseball Playoff Picture Finally Comes Into Focus

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2004; Page D01

BALTIMORE, Oct. 3 -- Two of the three televisions in the visitors' clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards were tuned to NFL games late Sunday afternoon, which gave the impression that learning the identity of their first-round playoff opponent was not as important to the Boston Red Sox as keeping tabs on that first-quarter Eagles-Bears score. Only the TV in a remote corner of the room showed the Minnesota Twins-Cleveland Indians baseball game, and almost no one was paying attention.

The playoff picture was almost complete by that point. On Saturday, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels had clinched their division titles. By late Sunday afternoon, the Houston Astros had wrapped up the final postseason spot, the National League wild card, by holding off the Colorado Rockies, 5-3.


Red Sox' David Ortiz is one of three MVP hopefuls in series with Angels. (Ted S. Warren -- AP)

_____ Baseball Postseason _____
National League
St. Louis vs. Los Angeles
Game 1: Cardinals 8, Dodgers 3
Game 2: Cardinals 8, Dodgers 3
Game 4: Cardinals 6, Dodgers 2
Cardinals win series, 3-1

Atlanta vs. Houston
Game 1: Astros 9, Braves 3
Game 2: Braves 4, Astros 2 (11)
Game 3: Astros 8, Braves 5
Game 4: Braves 6, Astros 5
Game 5: Astros 12, Braves 3
Astros win series, 3-2

American League
New York vs. Minnesota
Game 1: Twins 2, Yankees 0
Game 2: Yankees 7, Twins 6 (12)
Game 3: Yankees 8, Twins 4
Game 4: Yankees 6, Twins 5 (11)
Yankees win series, 3-1

Anaheim vs. Boston
Game 1: Red Sox 9, Angels 3
Game 2: Red Sox 8, Angels 3
Game 3: Red Sox 8, Angels 6 (10)
Red Sox win series, 3-0

* -- If necessary
All times Eastern Daylight Time


Legendary right-hander Roger Clemens was supposed to have started that game for the amazing Astros -- who were 14 1/2 games out of a playoff spot on Aug. 1 -- but was scratched due to a stomach virus and replaced by Brandon Backe. And now, in a fortuitous twist, Clemens was available to start Game 1 at Atlanta on Wednesday.

But there were still a few matters to be determined -- namely, the matchups. At 5 p.m. Sunday, seven of the eight playoff teams had been determined, but none knew whom it would be facing in the first round.

Which is how it came to pass that a sizeable chunk of the Red Sox' front office -- including General Manager Theo Epstein, assistant GM Josh Byrnes and traveling secretary Jack McCormick -- were crammed into the office of visiting clubhouse manager Fred Tyler to watch the conclusion of the Twins-Indians game in hopes of finding out where their charter flight, which was leaving in roughly two hours, would be heading.

Two flight plans had been drawn up -- one to Minneapolis, one to Anaheim -- and the Red Sox were prepared to decide in mid-air (somewhere over Chicago presumably) which way to go.

"Got any pull with the FAA?" one front-office type asked a Washington reporter who happened upon the scene.

As it turned out, within minutes of the Astros' clincher, the Twins lost to the Indians, sealing the Red Sox' travel plans -- go West, cowboys -- before they even got off the ground and completing a playoff picture that looks to be four weeks of fun.

We now know that:

• The wild-card-entry Red Sox will open in the land of the Rally Monkey against the AL West-champion Angels in a series that will feature three of the leading MVP hopefuls in the league -- Anaheim's Vladimir Guerrero and Boston's Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.

"Very confident," Ortiz said Sunday, when asked about the team's confidence level. "We played well against Anaheim in the regular season [5-4 record]. . . . What put us in the playoffs was when we held ourselves together and started playing better ballgames. We're hitting well. Our pitching is doing really good. And our defense has been great. All we have to do is go out there and execute."

The Angels, meantime, made up a three-game deficit in the season's final nine days to overtake Oakland and get in.

• The New York Yankees, despite finishing with the best record in the league, get perhaps the least attractive task in the first round: facing Minnesota Twins ace left-hander Johan Santana twice in a five-game series. Santana, the runaway favorite for the Cy Young Award, is 13-0 with a 1.18 ERA since the all-star break. He will face Yankees veteran Mike Mussina in Game 1 Tuesday.

The Yankees' pitching rotation has fallen apart in the last month, with Kevin Brown still working his way back from a broken hand (suffered when he pitched a wall in frustration), Orlando Hernandez complaining of a tired arm and Javier Vazquez struggling with inconsistency.

• Those amazing Astros, who snuck in with seven straight wins down the stretch, will head to Atlanta, where the Braves won the NL East for the 13th straight year but no longer have a Greg Maddux or a Tom Glavine to throw out there against Clemens in Game 1. Instead, the ball will be handed to Jaret Wright -- a reclamation project who, when last seen on a stage like this, was starting Game 7 of the 1997 World Series for the Cleveland Indians. John Thomson, the Braves' scheduled Game 2 starter, is now questionable after leaving Saturday's start with a stiff back.

Watch out once the Astros get back to Minute Maid Park for Games 3 and 4: They closed out the regular season with an 18-game home winning streak, the longest in baseball in 10 years.

• And the St. Louis Cardinals, owners of the best record in baseball but beset by a multitude of pitching questions, will open at home against the Dodgers. The Cardinals were looking a lot tougher a month ago, before Chris Carpenter was knocked out of the first round by a strained biceps, before Matt Morris was bumped from Game 1 to Game 3 by shoulder stiffness and before Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Woody Williams suddenly went cold.

"I feel like it was a byproduct of elimination, pretty much," Williams said when asked about getting the ball in Game 1. "I wish . . . I was in the spot they originally put me in, which means everyone is healthy and ready to go."


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