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BASEBALL'S STRETCH RUN : Final Month Provides 16 Teams With Chance for Ecstasy and Agony in Race for Playoffs

September 03, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baseball's September song features the romantic lyrics of stirring comebacks and dramatic finishes. The ecstasy of victory, the agony of defeat.

How is it for Tony La Russa, who went through it so often as manager of the Oakland Athletics and is now confronting the emotions of another September as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals?

Slightly more basic. Slightly less romantic.

"I'm as nauseous as I've ever been," he said. "I have a terrible headache. My head is pounding, I feel like throwing up and I'm having trouble swallowing.

"And the beauty of this situation is you want to feel like this every day."

With the realignment of 1995, the expansion of the playoffs and the addition of a wild card in the American and National leagues, the siege of upset stomachs and aching heads is wider spread than ever.

Aside from the six division leaders, 10 other teams approach the season's final four-plus weeks within striking distance of their division or wild-card lead.

"It's working out just as we thought it would," acting commissioner Bud Selig said.

It is what he would be expected to say, having pushed for realignment and the wild card as a method of keeping more teams and more fans involved in the races.

Perhaps.

If the wild card hasn't exactly created a buzz in the nation's sports bars, it has definitely provided many more players a reason to keep playing in September and complicated the playoff picture.

In the National League, for instance, the loser of the battle between the Dodgers and San Diego Padres in the West (or, perhaps, even the Colorado Rockies) could end up with the wild card, but so could the loser of the race between the Cardinals and Houston Astros in the Central or the Montreal Expos, who have nothing else to play for in the East, which belongs to the Atlanta Braves.

Similarly, the Chicago White Sox, who have nothing else to play for in the American League Central, which is dominated by the Cleveland Indians, are attempting to win the wild card over the runners-up in the West, at this point the Seattle Mariners, and the East, at this point the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox.

If some treat the wild card like a consolation prize--the Dodgers and Padres, for instance, insist it's not their objective--the Expos acknowledge it's the only prize.

"We knew we were playing for it when we got to training camp," Manager Felipe Alou said, realistically conceding division dominance to the Braves.

Alou could be haunted by Atlanta from start to finish. His Expos play seven of their last 11 games against the Braves, a daunting challenge in the wild-card pursuit.

The race in the West is likely to be decided at the same time. The Padres and Dodgers play seven times in the last 11 days.

The Expos must hope that one or the other dominates, an unlikely event.

They must hope that the Astros or Cardinals collapse, equally unlikely.

"I still think two clubs from this division will make the playoffs," Padre General Manager Kevin Towers said of the West, "but I really feel our club wouldn't be satisfied with the wild card.

"It's been so long since this team has won that the goal is to win the division. It's going to come down to the last nine games [the Padres also play two with the Rockies in that period], as we thought it would all year."

Said Dodger vice president Fred Claire: "We're not tracking the wild card. It's too difficult [to decipher]. From our viewpoint, the wild card is almost an afterthought until the last week. It's no surprise. We're headed to the wire with three teams neck and neck."

An inability to win on the road, however, has left the Rockies with a neck strain.

They were six back going into today's series opener with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a chance to recover prior to a four-game series at Houston and then a nine-game siege at home against the Braves, Astros and Dodgers.

If the Rockies are still in contention, they play seven of their last nine against the Matt Williams-less San Francisco Giants.

"I'm not saying the Giants couldn't rise up and pound them, but the Giants without Matt Williams are not the same team," Claire said.

"I mean, I'm sure San Diego feels like we do. We'd like to position ourselves for those final games against each other by opening some distance over the Rockies."

Pluses? Minuses?

--The Dodgers play 16 of their last 24 games at home, but San Diego does not have to go to the snake pit that is Coors Field while the Dodgers do--jeopardizing their pitching staff in three games before playing four with San Diego.

--The Dodgers can feed off their division success of last year, but the Padres enjoy veteran leadership in Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Bob Tewksbury, Wally Joyner and Fernando Valenzuela.

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