Too close to call
Bunched-up NL West may be game's best division
Updated: Sunday May 27, 2001 10:59 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
From top to bottom, No. 1 through No. 5, there may not be a better place in baseball than the National League West.
Everybody in the West -- all five teams -- are at .500 or above. Put that another, simpler way: There's not a losing team in the bunch. Not one Devil Rays or Pirates. Not one White Sox or Rangers to prey on. No Expos. No Mets.
Two games -- two games! -- are all that separate the leaders from the least.
With the new unbalanced schedule, which calls for a ton of games within the division, everyone at .500 or better means anyone can win.
And everyone has.
"The last three days, there's been three different teams in first place," Aurilia said last weekend. "It'll probably be that way for at least the next three months or so."
Yes, the West is one wild-hair of a place this season and, if early impressions mean anything, it may not change anytime soon. With everyone beating up on everybody, it's become one bloody scrum from top to bottom.
"I think it is pretty likely," says Arizona vice president and general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., "that the games-behind column may look strikingly similar a month, two months from now."
It was only last season that the Giants ran away with the West, winning 97 games to nip the Dodgers at season's end by a mere 11 games. Actually, it wasn't nearly as easy as it looked. At the end of June, the Giants were sitting at .500. It took a torrid second half -- 59-27 (.686) in the final three months -- for San Francisco to make a laugher out of the division.
The Giants won't have it that easy this season, though, and the unbalanced schedule again gets the blame. A mere 26-24 against the division last year, they have 81 games against the NL West this time around.
"With the new schedule now, it wouldn't surprise me if the division winner has like 85 wins or something like that. It's not going to be like last year," says Aurilia, whose Giants are in the midst of 17 straight games against NL West foes. "It's going to be a close race all the way through, notwithstanding injuries. I definitely think it's the toughest division."
Tough, certainly. Some call it parity. Others say that's just a pretty word for "mediocre."
The fact is, if Colorado or Arizona or San Francisco or Los Angeles ended up winning the West, few would be surprised. Maybe the only true "surprise" in this division would be the Padres.
And, as of Thursday morning, the Padres were tied for the lead in the NL West.
"That team is not playing above its head, by any means," Garagiola says. "[The Padres] didn't make any huge moves. But they've got good players. The pitching has shaped up. If they can get to the end of the game, it's lights out [because of Hoffman]."
One notable move the Padres did make was taking a chance on Henderson, who has helped invigorate the team. The Padres are No. 1 in the NL in stolen bases and walks and No. 2 in RBIs and runs.
"He's showing that he still has plenty of quality baseball left to play," Garagiola said.
Because of the unbalanced schedule, it's been difficult for one team to get too far away from the rest of the pack. To do that, a team would have to go on one huge streak, one way or the other. And that just hasn't happened yet.
The longest losing streak in the NL West this season has been the Padres' six-game skid from April 15-21. The longest winning streak has been five games. And every team in the division has done that.
The Padres, after Wednesday's victory, are the only NL West team to have two five-game winning streaks.
"Hey, man, any division is going to be this tough," Giants manager Dusty Baker says, "when you have the number of quality pitchers that we have in this division."
It's been a wild first couple months in the West. But can they keep it this close for the rest of the season?
"I totally expect in late August, early September that whoever is in last place to only be five or six games out. That's how tough this division is," Colorado's Todd Walker told a Denver newspaper recently.
"Someone might step off. I don't know," Baker said. "But I don't think so."