Last Friday in New York, Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox humiliated the Yankees, holding the defending World Series champions to one hit with 17 strikeouts and no walks. The Yanks looked as if they needed Serena Williams to return serve for them. Maybe she could have gotten a foul ball.
On Saturday, Yankees pitchers took their turn in the pillory, losing 11-10, thanks to nine walks. On Sunday, Roger Clemens lost -- again. The Rocket launch has been a scrub this season -- 12-9, with a 4.65 earned run average.
Finally, on Monday, Toronto's David Wells, the Yankees' hero last October, beat his old New York buddies, 2-1, for his 14th victory. That's two more than ringless Roger. Sure you bet on the right hoss, Boss?
After that fourth straight defeat, The Greatest Team Ever had the seventh-best winning percentage in baseball this season.
Wake up and smell the hard ball, people!
With three weeks left in the regular season, the game's autumn fragrance has seldom been more pungent. This battle is absolutely wide open. Eight teams, maybe even nine if you include Boston, have a reasonable chance to go to the World Series.
We're not talking about far-fetched, if-everything-goes-right fantasy scenarios. Right now, eight teams have between 85 and 90 wins. Boston has 83. All of them have obvious strengths. And just as obvious weaknesses. These teams aren't merely vulnerable. They practically wobble as they come out for the anthem.
How hard is it to handicap this lovely mess? You want the Indians? Fine. You get their pitching staff, too. Cleveland's ERA is 18th in baseball. You want the Astros' 20-game winners, Mike Hampton and Jose Lima? Great. You get their offense, too -- 16th in runs scored.
If you've got a mega-bullpen and sluggers to spare, like Texas, then your rotation reads like a rummage sale. How can you be so destitute that you trade for a guy with a 7.39 ERA, as Johnny Oates and Co. did for Jeff Fassero?
Just when you think the doughty Mets, for example, might have enough of this and a sufficiency of that, plus a fabulous defense, you suddenly ask, "Who's their big winner?" Why, it's Chad Ogea's favorite cheater, Orel Hershiser, 41 years old this week. You could have had Orel last winter for a smile.
The Dodgers and Orioles with their astronomical budgets should be doubly ashamed these days. If the frugal Reds, rebuilt Mets, no-name Red Sox and expansion Diamondbacks are printing playoff tickets, what's their excuse? Maybe you can't buy a pennant so easily after all.
Baseball fans tend to form opinions -- and late-season prognostications -- based on statistics. For decades, a team that won 100 games was deemed excellent. That's not necessarily true now. Not in this era of impoverished have nots. Baseball has four teams that may lose 100 games and four others that are no darn good at all.
So, subtract a half-dozen wins from all the contenders to compensate for this cheap-win factor. Then, what have we got? Instead of a sport with eight teams on a fancy pace for 96 to 101 wins, we get a more honest picture. We should ask: Does baseball have even one truly excellent team in '99? The Braves might've been, if their season hadn't been one long "ER" episode.
To answer the question, let's step back and make sure we're not overlooking any elephants in the room. One of baseball's simplest numbers is also often the deepest. Just add up the entire season as though it were one game: runs for vs. runs against. Big truths jump out. Lots of teams outscore their foes by 100 runs in a year. It proves little. But not many beat the league by 200 runs. It's a big deal that has been done only 13 times in the last 30 years, always by teams with title potential. As for a 300-run edge, it's virtually unheard of. Last season, the Yanks were the first to do it since the 1939 Yanks.
By this basic standard, one team is a shocker. They only have the fifth-best winning percentage this season (.607), so they're easily overlooked. The play on Mountain Time. Most incredible, they're only in their second season of existence. Yet the Arizona Diamondbacks have outscored their foes by a whopping 199 runs -- on pace for plus-224. Only five teams have outscored their opponents by that much in the last 30 years. In addition to last year's Yankees, those powerhouse clubs include the '95 Indians and the '75 Cincinnati "Big Red Machine."
What are the Diamondbacks doing on this list? Well, maybe they belong there. Randy Johnson may break the all-time season strikeout record held by Nolan Ryan. Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez may all finish the year with 100 runs, 30 homers and 100 RBI. Tony Womack leads the majors in steals. Omar Daal, Armando Reynoso and Andy Benes are double-figure winners. Starter Todd Stottlemyre is now back strong. Closer Matt Mantai (2.39 ERA) has 96 strikeouts in 61 innings -- an even higher ratio than The Big Unit. Buck Showalter is a superior manager. To top it off, after a mid-season hitting slump, Arizona is hot again.
Because they're not in a pennant race, because they're an expansion team "out West" and because they have no everyday superstar, the Diamondbacks will be the easiest to ignore of all baseball's September contenders.
But they're the team to watch. Though even they themselves don't yet suspect it, the Diamondbacks may be the team to beat in October as well.