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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Anyone's Ballgame

There is no clear favorite to win the World Series among the eight teams to qualify for the postseason, which begins with three games today.

September 30, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

It's tournament time in the major leagues. The quarterfinals start today -- eight teams, three rounds, and to the victor the title of World Series champion.

The seedings don't much matter, and neither does all that July hype about home-field advantage. The Angels emerged from last year's tournament as champions, and this year's scramble could be just as wild, with none of the eight entrants good enough to be a prohibitive favorite or shaky enough to expect first-round expulsion.

As the Angels packed their bags for the winter, there was no consensus within their clubhouse about which team might be the likeliest to succeed them as champions.

"I don't know," outfielder Garret Anderson said. "I think that's the way it should be."

It is not all about the New York Yankees. The Yankees spend the most money, as always. But the Angels knocked them out in the first round last year, and the Arizona Diamondbacks dethroned them in the 2001 World Series.

"It's nice to go in without the Yankees having that aura of invincibility they've always had," Angel closer Troy Percival said.

The television networks have belatedly caught on, to the Yankees' fallibility and to the mistaken assumption that America lives to see New York play. For the prime-time game tonight, Fox skipped the Yankees and selected the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves.

The Yankees and their partisans love to cite the advantage of postseason experience and the mystique and aura of Yankee Stadium. If postseason experience were such an advantage, of course, the Braves would have more than one World Series title to show for their unprecedented run of 12 consecutive division championships.

And, as Arizona pitcher Curt Schilling put it two years ago, "Mystique and aura are dancers in a nightclub."

In games of playoff experience among the starters in Game 1 of last year's division series at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees led the Angels, 296-0. The Angels split the two games in New York, losing one after Manager Mike Scioscia's controversial decision not to use Percival to protect a one-run lead with two out in the eighth inning.

Scioscia will have no such decisions to make this fall and will not question the decisions of others. He rejected offers to work as a television analyst in the playoffs, he said, in favor of cheering on his son in his football games at Crespi High.

Scioscia did, however, pick the Minnesota Twins as a favorite. The Twins are 46-23 since the All-Star break, when they traded for leadoff hitter and offensive catalyst Shannon Stewart.

"All the teams have different challenges, but the team that's the scariest is Minnesota," Scioscia said. "They've really been unstoppable since the All-Star break. They're a deep club. Their pitching is picking up. Shannon Stewart has made a huge contribution. They play outstanding defense.

"And they have the best home-field advantage of all the teams."

That is true, what with the infernal din inside the Metrodome and the unsettling challenge for fielders, who must look up into a white ceiling to track and catch a white ball. The Twins won their final 13 home games this year, and they went undefeated at home in the 1987 and 1991 World Series. But the Angels split in the Metrodome during last year's American League championship series, neutralizing the Twins' home-field advantage.

Angel outfielder Darin Erstad likes the Oakland Athletics, losers in the fifth game of the best-of-five division series in each of the last three years.

"I think Oakland is going to take that step this year," Erstad said. "They've got the experience. If they get by the first round, it will be lights out. They're my pick to win it all."

Anderson said he would be rooting for Oakland, the Angels' division rivals, and for the Chicago Cubs, because of his friendship with Manager Dusty Baker. Percival said he would be cheering for the Twins, because of what he called the respect between the teams, and for the San Francisco Giants, after their wrenching World Series loss to the Angels last year.

"I would have to say my heart is with San Francisco," Percival said. "I'd like to see them get back to the dance."

That would be a compelling story, particularly with Barry Bonds returning to the World Series in the year he lost his father, but can Edgardo Alfonzo and Benito Santiago make the Florida Marlins pay for pitching around Bonds? Can the Marlins run -- they led the majors in stolen bases and times caught stealing -- and win?

Can Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, with a combined 511 strikeouts, pitch the Cubs to victory despite an offense that posted the lowest on-base percentage of any National League team besides the Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets? Can the Braves win with a rotation that does not include Tom Glavine? Can the A's win without injured star pitcher Mark Mulder? Can the Boston Red Sox simply outhit everyone on days Pedro Martinez does not pitch? Can the Twins ride Johan Santana, who started the season in long relief, to victory in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium?

Can the same aging Yankee starters peppered by the Angels last October -- Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wells -- pitch better one year later?

"The one thing I learned last year," Angel second baseman Adam Kennedy said, "is that once you get to the playoffs, all bets are off. If a team gets hot, watch out. It's tough to pick a favorite."

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