SPORTS

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August 9, 2002

Fall prospects rest on August run

Don't feel sorry for Milwaukee or Tampa Bay fans; as terrible as those teams are, their groupies do not have the worst of it. The fans who really suffer, the ones who get the angriest and throw things and yell at their girlfriends for changing the channel, the ones who wonder, at times, why the world can't see them bleeding, are the fans of near-miss baseball teams. And those fans emerge every year, screeching obscenities and ripping their hair out, during the month of August.

It could be the heat, or the breaking point of all that wear and tear undergone by baseball players over the first hundred-something games of the season, but there is something about August that puts the final straw onto the camel-backs of the teams that will eventually come up short. Sure, you hear about great late-season comebacks, teams streaking their way into first place just in the nick of time, but those situations are exceptional. More often than not, the organizations that make the playoffs are the ones that can simply avoid collapsing under the August sun.

Which makes the pain of losing so much the more heinous. Very few experiences are so frustrating as watching a team—this team, your team—burn off the last fumes of its gasoline and sputter out only a few hundred feet from the finish line. Last fall, I watched in agony as the Red Sox not only couldn't make the finish line but slammed it into reverse and accelerated backward, taking out pedestrian after pedestrian along the way. I don't think any experience I've had as a fan was quite that abysmal. It was the kind of tragic performance possible only in Boston: an all-out, no-holds-barred meltdown.

No fan should have to go through that, unless he likes the Yankees, in which case he should go through it over and over and over again until he gets down on his knees and apologizes in a wail of terror and pitiful, pathetic sorrow for all his hundred years of arrogance and soullessness. But this year, there is a good chance that no team will pull a stunt like that of last year's BoSox. Here's my neo-expert breakdown of who will go home happy, and who will smash bottles on the sidewalk outside the sports bar:

In the AL, Anaheim is the newcomer, and that hurts them in the wild card race, but they've been winning close games, and winning them with defense and pitching—all good signs for late-season games. The Red Sox had six all-stars and appear to be the most impressive of these teams, but the Mariners have won the most consistently of the four. It would be a cataclysmic event if neither Seattle nor Boston saw postseason action this year, but Oakland and Anaheim have both shown they are good enough to challenge the competition. My prediction: New York, Minnesota, and Seattle will be the division winners, and Boston will get the wild card.

The Cardinals have spent the past few months in first place in the NL Central, but a recent charge by the Astros has combined with a terrible losing streak in St. Louis (see: Scott Rolen's hitting slump) to jeopardize their status. The Reds are in the mix, but they won't make it out of August without their top pitcher, the now-injured Elmer Dessens.

With the Diamondbacks squarely in first place out west, Los Angeles and San Francisco will battle to the finish for the wild card spot. Despite a stellar season from manager Jim Tracy and some surprising pitching from Odalis Perez and Eric Gagne, all of L.A.'s assets have shown signs of slowing. Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent show no such signs, however, and should, bail out San Francisco's mediocre pitching staff with help from closer Robb Nen. My prediction: Atlanta, Houston, and Arizona will win their divisions, and San Francisco will get the wild card. August and September will decide.