COMMENTARY : Down to the Wild Card : They Learn to Settle for Less

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the most important game of their 1995 season, the Angels started Shawn (Mr. 7.57 earned-run average in September) Boskie against Andy Benes.

And finished with Rich Monteleone, Mike James, Bob Patterson, John Habyan and their new $2-million mop-up man, Lee Smith.

In the game the Angels had to win to retain any reasonable hope of pulling the American League West title out of the dumpster, Boskie plunked Joey Cora in the back with a two-out, none-on pitch--with Ken Griffey Jr. on deck--gift-wrapping a three-run third inning for Seattle.

Griffey doubled and eventually scored when Angel catcher Greg Myers failed to hold a relay throw from right fielder Tim Salmon.

Then Griffey homered in the fourth inning.

Then Jay Buhner did the same in the fifth inning.

Then Tino Martinez brought in three more runs in the sixth inning when his ground ball split the seam between Angel first baseman J.T. Snow--playing, for some reason, off the line with two outs, the bases loaded and a left-handed hitter at bat--and the right-field foul stripe.

And Myers was tagged out at home, breaking from third on a one-out grounder to first . . . and the Angels eventually lost the first of a two-game must-sweep set in Seattle by a wave-the-white-flag final score of 10-2.

And now?

"Reality for us is that that we may be better off concentrating on winning the wild card," pitcher Chuck Finley said.

Not first place, which the Angels held for 123 of the first 151 days.

Not the AL West championship, which, with an 11-game lead on Aug. 9, seemed as much a certainty as Marcel Lachemann's AL manager-of-the-year plaque.

The wild card.

Last resort.

Last ditch.

"The way these guys are playing," Finley said of the Mariners, "everybody on this team is looking at each other and saying, 'Man, they are rolling. '

"There's no real advantage in the playoffs if you win the division. It's still two [games at home] and three [on the road]. Just as long as you get in there. That's what we need to realize.

"If we can get the wild card, this won't be a total catastrophe. Sure, we'd like to win the division outright, but to be so many games up and then miss out on the playoffs altogether, that would be devastating."

So that's the update from Team Diminished Expectations, previously known as the Angel Pennant Express. And that's the viewpoint of today's starting pitcher. So prepare yourselves, Angel fans, for this afternoon's pressure-packed game.

Finley's pitching for the Angels . . . and he's going for the wild card!

Not that Tuesday's Angel starter was faulting Finley's logic. Boskie had just taken a spin through the Mariner batting order. He had spun out after 2 2/3 innings.

Wild card?

Sounds good to Boskie.

"Oh, yeah. Definitely," Boskie said, nodding. "I'm sure everyone on this team will be keeping track of the Yankee game tonight, hoping Milwaukee beats them. Right now, our team is looking for any little positive to build on."

Besides, the better team is winning the West.

That piece of truth has been obscured by all the "Angels Free Fall/Fade/Fold/Disintegrate/Vanish Before Our Very Eyes" talk.

No question, the Angels blew their lead on their own. Tuesday was the Angels' first confrontation with the Mariners since Aug. 3, when the Angels still led by 11 games and Seattle Manager Lou Piniella was all but conceding the title.

The Angels allowed the Mariners back into the race, but now that they're here, playing on the same plastic grass, it's clear that Seattle has the Angels outmanned.

As for the Angels, all that's left to be said can be said in four words or fewer: Wild card or bust.

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