As the only club in baseball to lose more than 90 games four years running, the Twins would be the last team expected to demonstrate the way the new unbalanced schedule can alter the dynamics of a pennant race. Minnesota stands, however, as Exhibit A of how the change in the schedule can translate into a change in the standings. Minnesota's 14-3 getaway had deeper resonance this season than it would have had in 2000 because it was amassed entirely against American League Central opponents, the Royals, the Tigers and the White Sox, all of whom in only three weeks fell at least eight games behind—how does this sound?—the front-running Twins. The unbalanced schedule restores a long-lost emphasis on such intradivisional series. Since 1979 each team in the American League had played every other team a nearly equal number of times, while the National League became similarly balanced in '93. This season every team plays almost half its games against divisional foes, including a heavy dose of such matchups in April. Those games have given a sense of urgency to what traditionally has been a month of calisthenics.
"We couldn't afford the type of start we had last year because we might fall too far behind while playing teams in our division," says Giants manager Dusty Baker, whose club started 4-11 in 2000 before recovering to win the National League West. Through Sunday, San Francisco was 11-7 and in first place, largely because of an 8-4 intradivisional record.
The Mariners won a season-opening round robin in which the four American League West teams each played 19 intradivisional games. The 15-4 Mariners used the schedule to build a 5�-game lead over the second-place Rangers and a nine-game bulge over the defending division-champion As. "I like the unbalanced schedule because to win your division you're going to have to beat the teams in your division," Yankees manager Joe Torre says. "That way you've got nobody to blame but yourself if you don't get it done." That's odd, considering that last season New York edged the Red Sox by 2� games to win the American League East even though the Yankees finished with a pedestrian 25-24 record within the division. New York finished first in great part because it beat up on the Rangers (10-2) and National League teams (11-6)—otherwise the Yankees played .500 ball.
This year the American League East race might be decided not by how the Blue Jays, the Red Sox and the Yankees fare against one another but by how much they clean up on their 38 games each against the dregs of the division, the Orioles and the Devil Rays. Boston, for instance, already is 9-3 against those two. That's reminiscent of the performance of the vintage preexpansion New York teams that capitalized on 66 games every year against American League patsies like the A's, the Senators and the Browns/Orioles. From 1934 through '60 the Yankees lost only three of the 81 season series against those franchises. They won the '55 pennant by going 50-16 against those teams and 46-42 against the rest of the league.
The unbalanced schedule also puts a premium on how well pitchers match up against division rivals. New York lefthander Andy Pettitte, for instance, figures to make five starts against Boston this season. After he baffled the Red Sox 6-1 last Friday night, his career mark against them stood at 6-3 with a 2.61 ERA. The Rockies would seem well armed for their 76 National League West games with the addition of free-agent lefties Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. That twosome entered this season a combined 46-10 against Colorado's division rivals, with Hampton boasting a 9-0 record against the Giants. Last week the duo threw back-to-back shutouts against the Padres. Likewise, lefty starter David Wells, an off-season addition to the White Sox, is 51-20 lifetime against Chicago's rivals in the American League Central.
"The biggest effect of the schedule is going to be on relief pitchers," Mets manager Bobby Valentine says. "They're going to get hit more. Before, a team might see a reliever for a couple of batters, then not again for months. The more a hitter sees him, the more comfortable he is against him."
In some ways, though, the unbalanced schedule might make everyone less comfortable. When in April, Mets reliever Turk Wendell hits Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero with a pitch in retaliation for swinging on a 3-and-0 count with a 10-run lead, and Diamondbacks reliever Miguel Batista fires a pitch over the head of Dodgers second baseman Mark Grudzielanek right after Los Angeles centerfielder Marquis Grissom swipes second base with an eight-run lead, and Seattle fans welcome back Rangers shortstop and former Mariner Alex Rodriguez with a barrage of boos and bogus dollar bills, the opportunities for reverberations later in the season increase.
"The more you see a team, the more you'll see issues," says Mets general manager Steve Phillips. "The more you play, the more those issues can become heated."