Wednesday, August 08, 2007

With Homer Chase Over, It’s Back to Pennant Races

Sports of The Times
August 9, 2007

Now that we don’t have to fret about Barry Bonds at the moment — I mean, the next big story should be either retirement or indictment — can we please get back to the business of squirm-inducing pennant races?

The obsession with Bonds’s home runs has obscured the fact that only eight teams will qualify for the postseason, and that Mets fans and Red Sox fans have been sounding a trifle nervous in recent days.

The Mets are still learning to compete with their longtime nemesis from Atlanta. Last night at steamy Shea Stadium, they tied the current series with a 4-3 victory, on Moises Alou’s emphatic homer in the eighth, before Billy Wagner pitched out of all the trouble he had created for himself.

Meanwhile, destiny’s darlings from the Bronx have inserted themselves back into contention, producing a tectonic grinding between the twin needs of Yankees fans to blame Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, and at the same time exult in their team being the hottest one in baseball.

It was fun to hear a Yankees fan calling into WFAN on Tuesday night to note that the Yankees had won as many games as the Mets, 63, before last night. This behavior could definitely be construed as taunting.

After hearing about the inauspicious first rehabilitation start by Pedro Martínez in Florida — three innings, five runs — fans may have to deal with the reality that Petey is not likely to be a factor down the stretch, that this is not last year, and that one of these days the Mets are going to have to learn to beat the Braves.

The Braves were only three and a half games behind going into last night. Manager Willie Randolph had said that a victory was “very important,” so the Mets would have a chance to win a series against the Braves, which they have failed to accomplish this year. And then there are the Phillies, who pulled a half game ahead of the Braves with last night’s victory.

“There are three very good teams in this division,” David Wright said. “The Braves are standing in our way.” Wright added, “although I’ll say the same thing about the Phillies when we meet them.

“The Braves are a great team,” Wright continued. “It’s up to us to prove we can beat them consistently. We just haven’t done that yet this year.”

Even though the Mets beat out the Braves last season, the Braves have improved themselves by trading for Mark Teixeira at the end of July, when most of us were trying to stay awake on Pacific Coast time.

It’s not as if the Mets, the Yankees and the Red Sox are the only teams in baseball — although that is a reasonable conclusion by this East Coast early bird. If there is one thing I have learned from the recent fascination with the slugger-who-cannot-be-named, it is that baseball continues at strange hours in western outposts, long after I have fallen asleep following David Letterman’s opening monologue.

Tracking Mr. 756 has led to learning more about teams — like the Dodgers, the Giants and the Padres — that play in a distant time zone. This is a very big country. I remember a Los Angeles basketball writer once telling me that East Coast types favored Larry Bird over Magic Johnson because they saw Bird far more often than they saw Magic. Fair enough. Lately we have been getting a refresher course in baseball players named Loney, Kouzmanoff and Lewis out on the Far Coast.

At the same time, the Yankees have revived, shucking off a few older players and bringing up younger talent. Why, it almost looks as if Cashman planned it that way. While the nation’s lonely eyes were turned to the aging monument by the bay, the Yankees brought up a young slugger named Shelley Duncan and a young relief pitcher named Joba Chamberlain.

My favorite Yankees fan (he knows who he is) has been fearful that the Yankees would not qualify for the postseason, but Tuesday night they unveiled their latest phenom, Chamberlain, who is of American Indian heritage. My friend is already seeing Chamberlain as the reincarnation of the so-called Big Chief, Allie Reynolds, a name that still frightens old Brooklyn fans like me. Other Yankees fans are proclaiming Chamberlain as the next Mariano Rivera.

My favorite Red Sox fan (she knows who she is) announced the other day that the Sox were “only” seven games up on the Yankees. I chided her for sounding like a Yankees fan, always worried. No, she said, Yankees fans expect to win.

The Yankees were flying under the radar, at least until Tuesday, when Toronto threw at Alex Rodriguez for past sins and then old Roger Clemens saved his retaliation until he was just about done anyway. He would take any punishment, proudly. It’s August and there are pennant races, some of them getting tighter and, with that home run thing settled, we can now enjoy them.



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