Enlarged play-offs provide thrilling finale

Rupert Cornwell on the season when baseball's record books were rewritten
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And so, after exactly six months, 162 games and a regular season in which home runs have rained from the heavens like hailstones in a prairie thunderstorm, we are down to eight.

A couple of years ago, of course, it would have been just four. But in a quite uncharacteristic stroke of wisdom, Major League Baseball's owners in 1993 added an extra round of play-offs. The result this year has been a thrilling September run-in which kept more than half the 28 teams in contention for the four National League and four American League post- season places. Today sees the start of the first round of five games to establish the divisional winners. Then the format reverts to the familiar seven game championship series for each league, with the victors going to the World Series.

The 1996 vintage is unusually interesting, including the best of the recent past (the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, who contested last year's Series), some golden oldies (the New York Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles and the St Louis Cardinals, who collectively have struck hardly a spark in the 1990s), the southern California National League duet of the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers, plus one long overdue post-season novice, the Texas Rangers.

First though, a recap of the statistically amazing regular season that wrapped up on Sunday, in which hitters have flourished as never in history. In 1996, the 28 Major League teams scored 22,831 runs, shattering the previous record of 20,864. Their sluggers smote 4,962 home runs, an average of 2.18 per game, and an unprecedented 17 players hit 40 homers, compared with the previous single season high of eight. Two cracked the 50 barrier, to join a club whose previous membership of 12 included such immortals as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. One of the newcomers was Brady Anderson, hitherto a journeyman lead-off hitter for the Baltimore Orioles, whose previous season high was 21. Led by Anderson, the Orioles smashed the Major League team home run record with 257, eclipsing the 240 collected by the Maris and Mantle Yankees of 1961.

The fans have loved it, the managers less so - just as football coaches privately wince even when they win 5-2 or 6-3. The flip side of exceptional hitting is lousy pitching, and of that last commodity there has been all too much, epitomised by the woeful Detroit Tigers who compiled a 53-109 record and a team ERA of over seven.

What, the purist will wonder, has become of the low-scoring pitching duel of yesteryear? To which the safe answer is, wait for the play-offs where runs invariably are fewer and the pitching more dominating than in the regular season. Indeed, the final Sunday provided a compelling taste of what should lie ahead, as the Padres completed a three-game sweep of the Dodgers. Both sides had shut-outs through 10 innings, until Chris Gwynn delivered a two-run double at the top of the 11th to win the National League West for San Diego by a single game.

Now, however, for the serious part. In the American League, the Indians start as clear favourites, the team more experienced albeit less overwhelming than in 1995. In the first round they should put away the pitching-weak Orioles. The other divisional series is a toss-up. The Yankees, who have not been to the World Series since 1981, have the balance, but the Rangers the flair - as well as handsome winning records against all three of its rivals during the regular season.

The outlook in the National League is comparable. The Braves, by common consent, are the strongest team, even though that intimidating starting pitching rotation of John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery has been a mite more fallible than in the past. St Louis look the weakest of the bunch, but in Tony LaRussa they have the canniest manager in the business. Los Angeles are imposing on paper but have struggled of late, and baseball is a game of streaks. The National League team on a roll right now is the Padres. The pitching is solid, while Chris Gwynn's brother, Tony, has just won his seventh National League batting title and the third baseman Ken Caminiti has become one of the most devastating switch-hitters in the game.

And the World Series ? After the summer's pyrotechnics, the safe guess is that the autumn will be a repeat of 1995: the Braves against the Indians, crowned by another victory for the Braves - proof again of the old adage that, in the crunch, good pitching invariably beats good hitting. But I'll court disaster by predicting a Padres/Yankees Series, with the World Championship returning to the Bronx for the first time since 1981. That is probably the kiss of death for both. But, after a dismal season by the Mets, and with the city's two NFL teams floundering, New York needs something to cheer about.


AMERICAN LEAGUE: Boston 6 New York Yankees 5; Toronto 4 Baltimore 1; Milwaukee 7 Detroit 5 (10 innings); Minnesota 5 Chicago White Sox 4 (10 innings); Kansas City 4 Cleveland 1; Texas 4 California 3; Oakland 3 Seattle 1.

NATIONAL LEAGUE: Montreal 6 Atlanta 3; Philadelphia 9 New York Mets 5; Cincinnati 6 St Louis 3; Pittsburgh 8 Chicago Cubs 3; Houston 5 Florida 4 (10 innings); Colorado 12 San Francisco 3; San Diego 2 Los Angeles 0 (11 innings).


Eastern Division

W L Pct GB

NY Yankees 92 70 .568 -

*Baltimore 88 74 .543 4

Boston 85 77 .525 7

Toronto 74 88 .457 18

Detroit 53 109 .327 39

Central Division

Cleveland 99 62 .615 -

Chicago W Sox 85 77 .525 141/2

Milwaukee 80 82 .494 191/2

Minnesota 78 84 .481 211/2

Kansas City 75 86 .466 24

Western Division

Texas 90 72 .556 -

Seattle 85 76 .528 41/2

Oakland 78 84 .481 12

California 70 91 .435 191/2


Eastern Division

Atlanta 96 66 .593 -

Montreal 88 74 .543 8

Florida 80 82 .494 16

NY Mets 71 91 .438 25

Philadelphia 67 95 .414 29

Central Division

St Louis 88 74 .543 -

Houston 82 80 .506 6

Cincinnati 81 81 .500 7

Chicago Cubs 76 86 .469 12

Pittsburgh 73 89 .451 15

Western Division

San Diego 91 71 .562 -

*Los Angeles 90 72 .556 1

Colorado 83 79 .512 8

San Francisco 68 94 .420 23

*Wild card play-off place