The key to the American League playoff chase may not be in the stars
Forgive Indians catcher Sandy Alomar if he couldn't pinpoint a specific thing that Cleveland must do to secure a playoff spot. "Right now everything is key," said Alomar last Saturday. "Starting pitching, the bullpen, scoring runs."
That refrain could be heard in clubhouses around the American League last week, as through Sunday four teams, led by the Indians, were within 3� games in the race for the wild-card berth. Stars are expected to carry their teams in such a close race, but even the Mannys and Pedros of the world can only do so much. Here's a lesser-known player on each contender who could hold the key to his team's hopes in the American League wild-card race.
? Indians: righthander Steve Karsay. With Manny Ramirez and Kenny Lofton healthy and Roberto Alomar on a late-summer tear, Cleveland's offense last week was again a well-oiled machine. Indians starters, however, were averaging only 5.64 innings per outing, fourth worst in the league, so Cleveland's wild-card prospects may well rest with the bullpen—which is why Karsay has to regain his early-season form. He began the year as a closer but was shifted to a setup role when Bob Wickman was acquired in a July 28 trade. Before the deal Karsay had a 3.15 ERA, 19 saves in 24 chances and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4 to 1; since then he had gone 2-3 with a 5.89 ERA and nearly as many walks (13) as whiffs (16), and he had blown all four of his save opportunities. "There's nothing wrong," said Karsay, who did make an adjustment last week, focusing on not lifting his head during his delivery. "I didn't struggle for a long time—I guess now is the wrong time to start."
?A's: righthander Jim Mecir. Scoring hasn't been a problem for Oakland, but pitching has. Thanks to Mecir, acquired from the Devil Rays in July, the A's have survived the second-half meltdown of All-Star closer Jason Isringhausen. Through Sunday, Mecir, imported to be a setup man, had converted each of his and Oakland's last three save opportunities. If Isringhausen regains form, he and Mecir would give the A's one of the strongest setup-closer combos in the league.
? Blue Jays: righthander Joey Hamilton. An early September power outage—Toronto hit only five home runs in its first 10 games of the month—dimmed the hopes of a team that has relied on the long ball. A bright spot, however, was Hamilton's return from shoulder surgery. In four starts since Aug. 19, Hamilton was 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA and had thrown at least six innings in each outing—a huge relief for a bullpen that usually finds itself overworked on days David Wells doesn't start.
? Red Sox: leftfielder Troy O'Leary. Massaging the league's second-best bullpen and a rotation best described as ragtag beyond Pedro Martinez, manager Jimy Williams has more often than not reached into his hat and pulled out an effective pitcher. A more difficult trick has been squeezing runs out of the league's third-lowest-scoring offense, which is why O'Leary, mired in a seasonlong slump, must heat up if Boston is to win its third straight wild-card berth. Through Sunday, O'Leary was hitting .261 with 11 home runs, 56 RBIs and a sickly .406 slugging percentage; when the Red Sox won the wild card in 1998 and '99, he averaged 26 homers and 93 RBIs and had a .481 slugging percentage.
Catching's Gold Standard
Ausmus Should Pick Up a Glove
Gold Glove winners are baseball's version of made men—once they're in the club, it's nearly impossible to displace them—but because of injuries and players switching leagues, there are several openings for new faces this season. One of the most interesting choices is at catcher in the American League, in which the Rangers' Pudge Rodriguez has won the last eight awards and, when healthy, is clearly the class of the position. The question is, Did he play enough in 2000 to deserve the award? Rodriguez's season ended on July 24 when he broke his right thumb; he finished with 87 games behind the plate and 363 at bats, a little more than half his workload in a typical season. "He's the best catcher, but he probably won't win because of [the injury]," says Tigers bullpen coach Lance Parrish, himself a three-time Gold Glove catcher. "If Todd Helton's hitting .430 but gets hurt in midseason, does he still win the batting title?"
No, but there's a formula for determining eligibility in the batting race. None exists for the Gold Glove, which is awarded by vote of each league's coaches and managers. Many American Leaguers think Pudge played enough to retain the award. Plus, there's precedent for players' winning despite carrying less than a full workload. Three catchers—the White Sox' Sherm Lollar in 1957, the Braves' Del Crandall in '62 and the Padres' Benito Santiago in '90—have won despite catching fewer than 100 games (not counting strike-shortened seasons). "[ Rodriguez] still had 300 at bats," says Indians catcher Sandy Alomar, who won the award in 1990, "and does anyone else come close to doing what he does?"