Where there so recently was just one earnest pennant race, there now are 2 1/2 -- heated battles all, even if the combatants have spent much of their time lately running in place. If only the Los Angeles Dodgers had realized a few weeks earlier that they were capable of overtaking the hard-luck Cincinnati Reds in the National League West, the final strides of baseball's stretch run might include three full-bore, two-team sprints to the finish.

But, barring a collapse of which even the beleaguered Reds do not seem capable, the Dodgers' ascent apparently will run out of games. So as the summer of the Oakland Athletics and a handful of the game's have-nots closes with the end of the regular season in eight days -- or perhaps nine, if a one-game playoff or two are in the offing -- the focus turns to a pair of division races that are a long way from being decided.

Like the Reds, the Pittsburgh Pirates have not won so much as a division title since 1979. They have spent all but 27 days of 1990 in first place, however, and the unusually tame New York Mets seemed on the verge last week of conceding the NL East race. But as much as the Mets apparently would like to fold, surging Darryl Strawberry and baseball's deepest pitching staff won't let them; the division still is likely to be decided in Pittsburgh Oct. 1-3, when the Pirates and Mets meet on the final three days of the regular season.

Yet for intrigue and potential therapeutic value, Pittsburgh-New York cannot match the American League East tussle. The fight for the playoff spot opposite the mighty A's pits baseball's most noted underachievers of the past decade -- the Toronto Blue Jays -- against the game's all-time masters of the art of collapse -- the Boston Red Sox. This one may be largely decided this weekend, when the Blue Jays visit Fenway Park in their next-to-last series.

"You couldn't ask for much more than baseball's giving you in these last few weeks," Red Sox Manager Joe Morgan said Sunday at Yankee Stadium, where Boston lost for a second straight day in bizarre, tantalizing fashion to fall out of a first-place tie with Toronto. "These are some real bamboozlers, huh?"

They are, however, races more of omission than commission -- and the AL East is the leading case in point. Boston led Toronto by 6 1/2 games just three weeks ago, and the Red Sox seemed to have deflated the Blue Jays by shutting them out for three straight days at the SkyDome during the final week of August.

"We were about ready to pack it in, no doubt," Toronto third baseman Kelly Gruber conceded recently. "But they sort of started to let us back in it, and we had an attitude like, 'Hey, we've got no choice but to make a run at this.' "

The Red Sox' collapse is verging on complete. They have lost four of their last five games, eight of 10 and 14 of 20, and are threatening to match the largest lead ever lost by a first-place team after Sept. 1 -- 6 1/2 games -- since divisional play began in 1969. The record is held by the 1978 Red Sox, who fell to the Yankees in the memorable Bucky Dent playoff game at Fenway.

A one-game playoff would be in Toronto this time around, but the Red Sox would feel fortunate just to get to that point. Only Mike Greenwell is hitting consistently during the team's slide, and Boston comes down the stretch depending on Tom Bolton, Dana Kiecker and Greg Harris -- among the heroes of the Red Sox' early success but also the major culprits in their unraveling -- to anchor its starting rotation while Roger Clemens's tendinitis-impaired right shoulder continues to give him pain.

Clemens was examined by team physician Arthur Pappas yesterday in Boston and cleared to pitch this week, but the Red Sox have heard that refrain before. Clemens was to make his first start in 19 days Sunday in New York, but the shoulder began to bother him again Friday. Morgan is hoping for a Friday outing against the Blue Jays, but that remains indefinite.

Clemens not only is 20-6 with a 1.98 ERA (and 67-18 following Red Sox losses during his career), but he also is the club's unquestioned emotional crutch. When they thought Clemens was about to return, the Red Sox were unusually calm and full of resolve. Now that Clemens's status is uncertain again, they seem frazzled once more.

There were no tantrums -- like catcher Tony Pena's chair-throwing scene in Baltimore last week -- inside Boston's sullen post-defeat clubhouse Sunday. Yankees fans had taunted the Red Sox all weekend with chants of "1918, 1918!" -- the last time Boston won the World Series -- and the Red Sox are not allowed by long-suffering New Englanders to forget the pain they have wrought with years of excruciating near misses. "We don't believe in ghosts," Bolton said, but the morose mood of the room suggested otherwise.

Boston does has the advantage of venue. The Red Sox close with eight of their final nine games at home, while the Blue Jays are on the road for their last nine contests -- beginning last night in Milwaukee. Toronto is 40-33 away from the SkyDome and 26-29 on grass -- the surface on which they will play out the regular season. The Blue Jays do not fear Fenway, where they were 6-0 last season, albeit 0-4 this year.

"We don't see how we can lose," Gruber said. "And I'm only guessing at this, but I bet the Red Sox don't see how they can win."

The Mets too appear to believe that their best chance has passed. New York, presently three games behind, picked up just one game during a 10-day stretch ending just over a week ago in which it played 10 games at home while the Pirates were on the road for 10. Now the tables are reversed: Pittsburgh finishes with six of its nine games at Three Rivers Stadium, while the Mets -- who are 34-41 away from Shea Stadium after yesterday's defeat in Chicago -- are on the road for six of nine.

But Strawberry, who has eight home runs in September, and the pitching staff led by Dwight Gooden (15-1 since June 2) continue to bolster the Mets. They have grumbled about new manager Bud Harrelson, but not as much as about old manager Davey Johnson; they have grumbled about the stirrings that longtime mainstays Ron Darling and Bob Ojeda -- not to mention Strawberry -- will not be re-signed in the offseason; and they have fought their usual internal battles, although not with the same flair as in past years.

But still the Mets will not go away. "They're the champions and we're the newcomers," Pirates slugger Bobby Bonilla said. "We don't expect them to make it easy for us. We expect it to come right down to the last series, winner take all. . . . And we expect to win it."

As late as last Friday, when the Dodgers appeared to have the Reds reeling, it seemed only the A's would have a carefree final week. Cincinnati went to San Diego with a three-game losing streak and losses in seven of 11 contests to see its NL West advantage whittled to 3 1/2 games; Los Angeles trailed by as many as 16 1/2 games this season. Entering Friday, the Reds were but 50-54 since a 33-12 beginning.

But the Reds swept their four-game series with the Padres, increasing their lead to five games (4 1/2 after the Dodgers beat the Astros last night) and dropping their magic number to five. Cincinnati likely will become the first NL team to hold first place from start to finish since the 162-game schedule began in 1962, and some Reds players already are popping open the champagne bottles -- at least figuratively.

"It's over," pitcher Jose Rijo said over the weekend. "Yogi Berra says it's not over until it's over, but I say it's over. I know some people will say I shouldn't say that, but I can feel it. I know this team. I know it's over."

A Reds victory would ease the sting of a recent history of disappointments. They were the only NL West team to fail to win a division title in the 1980s, and four second-place finishes in the past five years multiplied the frustrations. Gone are the Pete Rose distractions of 1989; the Reds are ready to celebrate as they begin a nine-game, season-ending homestand against the Atlanta Braves tonight.

Said Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda: "You can only sit back and wonder about 'what ifs.' What if Orel Hershiser hadn't been hurt all year? What if Kirk Gibson had been 100 percent? What if we had played like we're capable from April or May to September instead of late July through September? . . . It just goes to show you: 'What ifs' are for the losers."