- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

Grab the remote and settle in, America. The last weekend of the baseball season should be a sizzler with pennant races far from over and a wild-card berth up for grabs.

Three teams are fighting for the last two spots in the American League playoffs, the tightest finale in a decade. And it’s going to take a pair of backyard brawls to knock out the loser. Yankees vs. Red Sox, White Sox vs. Indians.

“We all know what the situation is,” New York Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “To think that it’s come down to a handful of games to decide what 157 couldn’t decide, that’s great for baseball — but not too good for my stomach.”

Things aren’t nearly so exciting over in the National League, where Atlanta, St. Louis and San Diego have wrapped up the division titles. But the Philadelphia Phillies are still hanging around the wild-card race, trailing Houston by two games.

“It’s fun, man,” Philadelphia’s Michael Tucker said. “All you can do at this point is play hard. This is one of those things that not a lot of people experience. You have to go out there and have fun and see what happens.”

One or two races usually go down to the final weekend. But this weekend’s matchups are particularly juicy. The Yankees and Red Sox are playing at Fenway Park for the AL East title, and that series will impact Cleveland’s postseason chances. The Indians play host to the White Sox.

“It just doesn’t get any better this,” the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez said. “This is the best time of my life, the most fun time in my baseball career. I don’t remember a race like this since I’ve been around.”

The Yankees, Red Sox and Indians are within one game of each other with three to play, and it takes a calculator and some graph paper to figure out the different scenarios.

Chicago clinched the AL Central by beating Detroit yesterday afternoon 4-2. But Cleveland is still alive in the wild-card race, tied with Boston. The Red Sox are a game behind the Yankees in the AL East, with a three-game series at Fenway Park beginning tonight.

Got all that?

“I’m not good in math,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. “That’s why I just say, ‘Come back tomorrow and win the game.’”

While some fans don’t like a schedule that loads up on games against division rivals, especially at the end of the season — “We’re sick of seeing [fill in the blank]” — this weekend is the perfect argument for it.

Yankees-Red Sox is one of the best rivalries in all of sports no matter whether it’s April or October. They have finished 1-2 in the East the last seven years, and their feisty fan bases reach far beyond the East Coast.

The Yankees are baseball’s glamour boys, loved and loathed in equal amounts for their big names and even bigger payroll. Boston remains America’s lovable underdog even with its World Series title last year, a scrappy team that still plays with Little League enthusiasm.

If the Red Sox can’t repeat last year’s ALCS drama, when Boston rallied to win four straight after being three outs from being swept by the Yankees, this is the next best thing.

“It’s the master plan,” Boston’s Johnny Damon said. “God’s way.”

The Red Sox were up by four games Sept. 10, but the Yankees climbed back atop the division last week, and they have been trading spots since. With a one-game lead, the Yankees will have to win at Fenway Park twice, at most, to clinch the East title.

According to Elias, the only time New York had a lead with four games to go and failed to win was 1904, back when the Yankees were called the Highlanders.

“Three teams in it, two make it and one will miss it. Every game is like a playoff game,” said Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina, who is scheduled to start Sunday’s game. “It’s going to be as big as if it were a seven-game series.”

The White Sox-Indians matchup doesn’t quite have the drama it did last week when Chicago was on the verge of a historic collapse. The White Sox had blown all but 11/2 games of what had been a 15-game cushion Aug. 1, and Cleveland looked unstoppable.

But the Indians chilled at the most inopportune time, losing three straight for the first time since the middle of August.

In the NL, Houston needs one win to clinch a tie in the wild-card race with Philadelphia. The Astros opened a four-game series with the Chicago Cubs last night with a 3-2 loss, while the Phillies had the night off before going to Washington for three games.

Oh, and if playoff races weren’t exciting enough, there’s a subplot to Yankees-Red Sox: Rodriguez and Boston’s David Ortiz are the leading candidates for AL MVP.

“The focus is on the team. A nice side note behind that is, obviously, the MVP race,” Rodriguez said. “Front and center right now is the Yankees vs. Boston.”

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