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Monday, September 23
 
Baker's Dozen: The week in preview

By Jim Baker
ESPN Insider

1: Best Matchup of the Week
Oakland at Seattle: Tuesday through Thursday

Barry Zito, Tuesday night's starter, is almost a sure thing to at least tie for the American League lead in victories for 2002. (That is, unless Derek Lowe can somehow go 2-0 this week.) A win in Tuesday's game will lock it up. If that does turn out to be the case, he will follow teammates Tim Hudson (2000) and Mark Mulder (2001) as league leader. This will only be the second time in American League history that three different pitchers from the same team will have topped the loop in victories in three consecutive years. The previous team was the Baltimore Orioles of 1979-81:

1979 Mike Flanagan
1980 Steve Stone
1981 Dennis Martinez

The 1995-98 Braves hold the record with four straight years (Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Denny Neagle and Tom Glavine). The Brooklyn Superbas of 1899-01 also turned the trick, with Jay Hughes, Joe McGinnity and Wild Bill Donovan.

It's probably no surprise that of the 13 seasons involved, eight of the teams finished in first and this year's A's have a good chance to make it nine (with last year's 102-win wild-card season thrown in as well).

2: The Heartbreaker Matchup of the Week
San Diego at Los Angeles: Friday through Sunday

Eight possible races, and precious little to show for it.

If the Dodgers are still holding on to their Wild Card (I capitalize it as I would the name of a diety) aspirations come Friday, the Padres will be waiting to gleefully knock them out of the race. Heck, Brian Lawrence (3-1) and Brett Tomko (3-0) may have already done it between the two of them. The Padres are 8-6 against the Dodgers this year. All but two of the 17 San Diego pitchers who have faced Los Angeles have pitched well. As a team, their ERA is over a run and a-half better against L.A. than against everyone else.

We like to project "big picture" ideas onto things and the San Diego-Los Angeles rivalry is one of those instances. Do the Pads really get up for playing the Dodgers? Is such a thing even possible in baseball?

3: The Milestone Matchup of the Week
Sammy Sosa vs. Cincinnati, Tuesday through Thursday, and vs. Pittsburgh, Friday through Sunday

I smell a pool!

Two home runs needed. Six games left -- all at home. Fifty-four innings remaining -- or less, since the Cubs are bound to win a couple. Six starting pitchers. Any number of possible relievers (over 20). So, get your pals together and have a pool wherein you name the game, inning and pitcher off owhom Sosa will hit his 500th homer. As a tie-breaker, what will the count be when he hits it?

Obviously, he has to hit number 499 first, so it won't do to pick an early inning for Tuesday's game. Oh -- my conscience demands that I tell you that all monies wagered in such an endeavor should be donated to the favorite charity of the winner.

Sosa also needs the two home runs to reach 50 for the fifth consecutive year.

4: The 40/40 Club Invitational Matchup of the Week
Florida vs. Vladimir Guerrero: Tuesday through Thursday

The big watch for the Expos is Vladimir Guerrero going for the 40-40 club. He needs two home runs in six games to get in there. The 40-40 club could add two new members this year with both Guerrero and Alfonso Soriano of the Yankees (one homer shy) standing at the doorstep of joining Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996) and Alex Rodriguez (1998) as the only players to accomplish this rare feat.

Whether they make it or not, what are the odds of them coming close again? Canseco was just 23 when he did it (Soriano is 24) and the closest he ever came again was 10 years later when he 46 home runs but fell 11 steals short. A-Rod was a year younger than Canseco but his steal totals have dropped off and not returned to 1998 levels. Bonds was 31 and came within three steals the following year. The speed portion of his game has diminished since then.

Canseco's previous high in steals was only 15. A-Rod's was 29. Soriano had 43 last year, so there is reason to believe stealing can remain a part of his game while he matures and continues to hit home runs. Guerrero stole 37 last year, bettering his career best of 14, so perhaps he too can remain a double threat. I would say that both stand a pretty good chance of getting another shot to enter the club.

How many men have even managed to steal 40 bases and also hit 40 home runs in different seasons? Here are two:

Willie Mays (40 steals in 1956, 40+ homers six times)
Brady Anderson (53 steals in 1992, 50 homers in 1996)

Can you think of any others? I can't off the top of my head.

5: The Biggest Mismatchup of the Week
Tampa Bay at New York Yankees: Monday through Thursday

Yes, this was also the Biggest Mismatchup of last week, but the Rays managed to take two of three from the Yanks.

If the Yankees draw the Angels in the first round, it will be a matchup of teams with remarkably contrasting styles. Consider:

Strikeouts
Yankees: most in the league with 1131
Angels: best in the league with 773 -- almost a hundred less than next-best team

Walks
Yankees: first in the league with 615
Angels: 11th in the league with 444 -- about the same as Tampa Bay

When an Angels player comes to the plate, there is a 90 percent chance he's going to put the ball into play. When a Yankee player comes to the plate, it's only about a 70 percent chance.

6: The Big Increase/Big Decrease Matchup of the Week
Seattle at Anaheim: Friday through Sunday

If the American League were a neighborhood bowling league, the Angels would go home with the "Most Improved" trophy. Here are the teams who posted the biggest increases in 2002 over 2001:

Anaheim (+21 and counting): Some kind of strange, miracle season in that it was done with essentially the same lineup as last year.

Boston (+7 and counting): It could have been so much more.

Minnesota (+4 and counting): Continued upward mobility.

Baltimore (+4 and counting): By the time they remembered who they were, they had already surpassed 2001's infamy.

Yankees (+3 and counting): Increased payroll = increased wins. Too bad it's not that simple for every team.

American League Faders
Seattle (no better than 20 worse): A tough act to follow.

Cleveland (no better than 15 worse): And so ends the Golden Age of Cleveland baseball.

Detroit (no better than 5 worse): It is never so black as it is before even more blackness.

Toronto (no better than 2 worse): Look for them in the improvement list in 2003.

Tampa Bay (no better than 2 worse): Patience…patience…

American League Course-Stayers
Chicago White Sox, Kansas City, Oakland, Texas. (All currently projecting to finish in the neighborhood of last year's records.)

7: The Big Improvers Matchup of the Week
Cincinnati at Montreal: Friday through Sunday

Along with the Braves, the Expos and Reds had the biggest improvements in the NL over 2001. Do you remember last year's big National League improvers? That's right: Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston. Two fell back down the stairs and the third came up short in the end.

National League Improvers
Montreal (+11 and counting): A decent swan song or the dawn of a new era of Montreal greatness?

Atlanta (+9 and counting): Keeping up with the Joneses got even harder this year.

Cincinnati (+9 and counting): Now what? Back down again? Or is the foundation in place?

Pittsburgh (+7 and counting): Yo-yoing between 62 and 72 wins doesn't really count as true improvement.

Arizona (+3 and counting): How many World Champions have better records the next year? See below for further discussion.

San Francisco and Los Angeles (+1 and counting): Synchronicity.

National League Faders
Chicago Cubs (no better than 17 worse): Expect a bounce back in 2003 -- but how far back?

San Diego (no better than 9 worse): A lost season.

Milwaukee (no better than 7 worse): A lost decade.

Houston (no better than 5 worse): We expect better from an organization this good.

Mets and Philadelphia (no better than 1 worse): It only seems worse.

National League 2001 Approximators: Florida, St. Louis, Colorado

8: The Playoff Preview Mathchup of the Week
Arizona at St. Louis: Monday through Wednesday

This is like a boxer sparring with his challenger at the gym a week before the big title fight.

The Cardinals sure are in a nice 91 to 95 or 96-win groove these past few years. The Diamondbacks, however, are one of the minority World Series champion teams to better their record the following season. Only 23 previous teams have done this while 72 have not. (The 1951 Yankees posted the exact record as the '50 World Champs.) The 1953 and 1954 Yankees were the only team ever to win the Series two years in a row and improve their record the following year both times. Of course, the '54 Yanks finished in second. The longest drought with no team improving upon its championship record began in 1976 when the Reds failed to better their monster 1975 record. It ended in 1988 when the Twins -- owners of the worst championship record ever in '87 -- improved by four games but still finished a distant second to Oakland. The most recent teams to have achieved this obscure goal are these:

2001 Yankees (+8 ½ games over 2000)
1997 Yankees (+4 games over 1996)
1990 Athletics (+4 games over 1989)

9: The Worst Matchup of the Week
Detroit at Kansas City: Tuesday through Thursday

Well, at least Detroit fans have the Lions to take their minds off of -- oh, sorry ...

Mike Sweeney and Manny Ramirez both managed to raise their averages this past week. I think they should enter some kind of blood pact that neither will skip an at-bat in their quest for the batting title this week. Actually, Ramirez really can't afford to as he's still a few plate appearances shy of qualifying.

10: The Save the Last Dance For Me Matchup of the Week
Atlanta at New York Mets: Friday (2) through Sunday

So named because Atlanta closer John Smoltz has a chance at the single-season saves record and would have to wait until this series to surpass it. Currently trailing Bobby Thigpen's 1990 total by a count of 57 to 53, Smoltz (owner of the sixth-best ERA in the Braves' bullpen) needs things to break just right for him to even tie the record. He's saved just under 60 percent of Atlanta victories in 2002. Given that ratio, that means the Braves would have to win all seven games for him to tie the record. It is certainly conceivable they could go 5-2 on the week with him saving all five games, though. He saved five of seven Braves games from June 24 to July 1. He has also had the following periods of success:

Five of seven games from April 17 to 24
Five of seven games from August 25 to September 1

He has also saved four games in a five-game stretch on five different occasions this year. A lot depends on who the Braves are inking into the lineup and if manager Bobby Cox decides that getting rested for the playoffs is a higher priority than Smoltz getting his record.

11: The Battle of the Ubershortstops Matchup of the Week
Oakland at Texas: Friday through Sunday

Featuring Miguel Tejada -- among the favorites for those who believe an MVP candidate must play for a playoff team -- versus Alex Rodriguez, favorite of those who don't think it's a prerequisite. Just for fun, what have they done in head-to-head competition this year?

A-Rod has hit four homers and driven in 10 with an OPS of 1.023 against Oakland. Tejada has hit two homers and driven in 15 with an OPS of .787 against Texas. A-Rod's task has been more difficult since he must face the Unholy Three (Zito, Mulder and Hudson) while Texas's pitching is notoriously more generous. Oakland's ERA is 4.52 in those games. Texas' is 5.35.

12: The Icing on the Cake Matchup of the Week
Seattle at Anaheim: Friday through Sunday

Last week I managed to do what many thought impossible: rile up the most docile fans in all of professional sport. By simply stating that I had only met one Angels fan in person and implying there was a lot of bandwagon jumping going on in Southern California thanks to their outstanding 2002 season, I caught the ire of Halo Pride full in the face. I received many, many letters from boastful, long-time Angels fans who took me to task for doubting their existence. My experiment was a success then! I managed to draw out a group of people known for their shy and unassuming nature. Now they must carry that passion to the ballpark for the playoffs and root their team into its first World Series appearance.

Can Garret Anderson get to 60 doubles? He's at 56 with six games to go. (Nomar Garciaparra is at 55.) Nobody has hit 60 doubles since Charlie Gehringer and Joe Medwick both did it in 1936. Looking at list of all-time best double seasons, all occurred in the 1930s or within the last five or six years with the following exceptions: George Burns, 64 in 1926; Tris Speaker, 59 in 1923; George Kell, 56 in 1950; Ed Delahanty, 55 in 1899 and Hal McRae, 54 in 1977.

13: The Battle for A Distant Second Matchup of the Week
Atlanta at Philadelphia: Tuesday through Thursday

Check out ESPN Insider as Jim reports further on Atlanta's Fab Four.

Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at jimbakerespn@yahoo.com.






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