<
>

Down the stretch they come

Right around this time of the season, most seasons, I get the sneaking suspicion that I've been cheated.

Cheated out of pennant races.

I know it's not anybody's fault. I can't even figure out a way to blame Bud Selig. It's just the way the season usually resolves itself.

A few teams jump to huge leads early, and they're never seriously threatened in the second half. This season, that's the Braves and Giants.

A few teams look vulnerable in August, but show their true colors in September. This season, that's the Yankees and Athletics. (And yes, I did pick the A's in April ... but yes, I also thought they were toast in July. You'd think I'd know better by now.)

Which leaves us, with a week and a half left, looking at only two pennant races (not including the wild card silliness). And this year, even those pennant races aren't particularly compelling, as they involve teams that won't easily be mistaken for the '27 Yankees. In fact, both Central leaders -- the Twins and Astros -- will have to rush just to win 90 games.

Don't get me wrong. I'll take my pennant races where I can find them, and the presence of the Cubs in one of those pennant races is a lovely bonus. But the situation on the ground reminds me that the smart baseball fan will take his pleasures from the ordinary things the game offers, because the high drama just doesn't show up often before October.

Anyway, about those pennant races ...

I'm sure you've already heard if you care, but there is a huge difference between the schedules facing the Twins and the White Sox over the next dozen days.

But in case you haven't heard because you only sort of care, here's who the Sox and Twins will play:

Sox Twins
2 vs. Twins 2 vs. White Sox
3 vs. Yankees 2 vs. Indians
7 vs. Royals 7 vs. Tigers

Need we say more? The White Sox have 12 games left, and all 12 are against teams that are still fighting for a pennant. The Twins have 11 games left: two against the White Sox, and nine against teams that haven't been in the pennant race since well before the Summer Solstice.

Which isn't anything against the Indians and Tigers. The Indians have some good young players, and the Tigers ... well, the Tigers have some players. Both teams are still trying, in the sense that their pitchers are still trying to make good pitches and their hitters are still trying to make good hits.

But you can't really say the same for those teams' front offices. You can't blame the men who run the Indians and Tigers; they have to be thinking about 2004 and beyond. But they're playing a different game than the teams still trying to win. And it's just bad luck for the White Sox that the Yankees and Royals are still trying to win.

So while it's true that the Sox are only one-and-a-half games behind the Twins, it's also true that they're in big trouble. They don't have to win these next two games against the Twins ... but if they don't, they'll be decided underdogs afterward. Because sometimes it's not how you play, but who you play (which, by the way, is why the Red Sox are sitting pretty in the race for the American League wild card).

Looking at the same stuff in the other league:

Astros Cubs
2 vs. Rockies 1 vs. Mets
3 vs. Cardinals 3 vs. Reds
3 vs. Giants 7 vs. Pirates
4 vs. Brewers

Hard to see a big edge for either team there. The Astros do have to play the Giants, but I suspect Felipe Alou will be more interested in resting his players than knocking the Astros out of first place. They also have to play the Cardinals, who presumably will be fighting back this weekend like a cornered wolverine. So yes, the Astros do have the tougher schedule.

Is that tougher schedule worth one-and-a-half games to the Cubs? On paper, no. But I think you'd have to call this very nearly a dead heat, and thus the single race worthy of attention if you're not a Twins, White Sox, Phillies, or Marlins fan.

Me? I'll still be sneaking peaks at the Royals until they're officially wiped out. But the best races are in the other league, for the Central and the wild card.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.