Arizona join the usual suspects for World Series

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The Independent Online

WITH THE last cliff-hanging matches of the season finished, baseball is heading into a highly competitive post-season race for the World Seriestitle.

WITH THE last cliff-hanging matches of the season finished, baseball is heading into a highly competitive post-season race for the World Seriestitle.

After the glittering 1998 season, with the unstoppable New York Yankees cutting through the competition like a shark in the surf as Mark McGwireand Sammy Sosa swept away the home run records, it was always going to be hard to keep the fans on the edge of their seats in the same way.McGwire and Sosa again rewrote the record books by hitting more than 60 home runs but now the regular season is over, the prospects for theWorld Series are intriguing.

The biggest winners of the season so far, and the biggest surprise, are the Arizona Diamondbacks, who swung their way to a commanding 14-gamelead in the National League West. They won their 100th game to end the season on a high note, and they have made the play-offs in only theirsecond year, with the biggest turnaround in baseball history, winning 35 more games than in 1998.

In the same division, the year's biggest losers were unquestionably the Los Angeles Dodgers, Rupert Murdoch's finest, who have had a pitiful andwretched season - all the more so given the vast amounts of money spent on them. Perhaps it is true, as some of the sportswriters say, that LA is justnot a sports town; or perhaps it just goes to prove that money cannot buy performance. In San Diego, the Padres - one of last year's best performingteams - had a similarly bad season.

But in most respects, the teams that will meet in the play-offs are the usual suspects. The Cleveland Indians walked all over the American LeagueCentral, with a 21-game margin. In the National League Central, the Houston Astros won their third straight title, narrowly pipping the CincinnatiReds, meaning that they will continue to play at the aging Astrodome for a few more games before it is consigned to history.

The Atlanta Braves closed the season with an 18-0 shut-out of the Florida Marlins, emphasising their dominance of the NL East - it is their eighthconsecutive season in the play-offs. Only one team came close: the New York Mets, and thereby hangs a tale.

The Mets, one of the perpetual also-rans, have electrified the city in the last few days by fighting back against the Pittsburgh Pirates for the wild-cardplace in the play-offs. At the end of the week, it looked as if they were finished, only for a series of tough moves to take them back into contention.The complex arithmetic of the series meant that they had to win on Sunday night to stay in with a chance, and they did, in the most remarkable style.The ninth inning saw the teams level on 1-1. Mike Piazza stepped up to the plate, with one out and the bases loaded. Brad Clontz was on the mound,and with his first pitch he delivered a terrible ball straight into the ground. Melvin Mora dashed home from third base to give the Mets the game. Lastnight they were facing the Reds for the National League wild card place.

Across the city at Yankee Stadium, it has been a more subdued season, not the Teutonic march towards victory which gave the Yankees the WorldSeries last year. They have faced their share of problems, with their manager, Joe Torrie, diagnosed with prostate cancer, but they have alsodemonstrated less of that sense of invincibility which they trademarked in the 1998 season. With four games over the Boston Red Sox, they look likethe favourites to take the title again, but not by much, for this has been a season of small but significant surprises. They will face the Texas Rangers,who emerged on top of the AL West again, which should present them with few problems, but after that things will get tougher.

The Red Sox, a team of permanent anguish, must be hoping that the biggest surprise is yet to come. Having clinched the American League's wild cardplace, they will be only too aware of the mixture of yearning and cynicism which grips their fans. They are in the playoffs for the second consecutiveyear, the first time that this miracle has happened since the First World War, which was when they last won the World Series. They are a long shotfor the title; but then stranger things have happened.