Autumn takes over from summer, and baseball changes gear. Today the relaxed summer pastime turns into nail-biting sudden death. And as usual one question dominates: Can anyone stop the New York Yankees winning their fifth world championship in seven years?
The Yankees wrapped up their steamrolling campaign in the American League East on Sunday with their 103rd win of the season, at the expense of the hapless Baltimore Orioles. Tonight at Yankee Stadium they open their divisional series against the AL wildcards Anaheim Angels, in the post-season for the first time since 1986.
The winners progress to the Championship Series to face either the Oakland Athletics or the Minnesota Twins – either of which will be the neutrals' favourite. Both have disproved the cliché that only rich market teams succeed. The Athletics have one of baseball's smallest payrolls, barely a quarter of the Yankees' $122m (£78m), while the Twins were set to be "contracted" – baseball's euphemism for being shut down – until a Minneapolis judge stepped in at the beginning of the year to block the process.
But do either have the depth to beat the Yankees and their top-flight pitching and hitting – not to mention experience – in a best-of-seven Championship Series? If anyone is to cause an upset, the Angels may be the best bet in a best-of-five Divisional Series where they could catch New York cold.
The National League, however, is less predictable. The Atlanta Braves, who on Sunday wrapped up their 10th straight divisional title, are favoured, as usual thanks to their dominant pitching. Tomorrow they start their Divisional Series against the wildcards San Francisco Giants, for whom Barry Bonds, holder of the single-season home-run record, has maybe his last chance to prove he is not a post-season choker.
If Bonds and the Giants see off the Braves, they will face either Arizona, who defeated the Yankees in one of the sport's greatest World Series last year, or the underrated St Louis for the right to represent the NL in the 2002 Series.
As in 2001, Diamondbacks' hopes are pinned on the all-conquering pitchers Randy Johnson and Kurt Schilling, winners of 47 games between them in the regular season. But St Louis could surprise everyone. Though without superstars, they have no obvious weaknesses and in Tony La Russa possess the canniest manager in the game.
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