Yankees Seem Better Built for Playoffs

The Seattle Mariners could win 120 games in the regular season, and it wouldn't matter. They could have swept the season series against the New York Yankees, instead of having won six of nine, and it would be irrelevant come October.

With all due respect to Detroit pitcher Jeff Weaver, who said that "unless there are three knuckleballers in somebody else's rotation, there's no doubt in my mind Seattle is going to win the World Series," the Yankees still have to be considered favorites to win the pennant.

New York might have the most playoff-seasoned collection of players in recent sports history, a group led by Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams that has thrived on October pressure while winning three consecutive World Series titles and four of the last five.

If Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez returns to form after having missed almost three months because of a toe injury, the Yankees still have baseball's most formidable playoff rotation.

Hernandez is 8-1 with a 2.21 earned-run average in 10 postseason starts, the Yankees are 15-4 in left-hander Andy Pettitte's 19 postseason starts, and Roger Clemens is well on his way to winning his sixth Cy Young Award.

Closer Mariano Rivera is more reliable than October frost, his 4-0 postseason record, 0.71 ERA and 19 saves unrivaled.

"We've got a special team here," Pettitte said. "It's all about winning. We lost 15 of 18 going into the playoffs last year and still thought we were going to win the World Series.

"We're able to turn it up a notch when we have to. There's going to be a time when it's not going to happen, but we have so much confidence in our ability and our team that we never panic when things start going bad."

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The case against the Yankees: They're 39-12 when Pettitte or Clemens starts but 37-42 when anyone else pitches. They're 28-4 against Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Baltimore but 48-50 against everyone else. They're 6-12 against the Mariners and A's, the teams most capable of knocking them off.

But as good as Seattle is, with its consistent starting pitching, deep bullpen, terrific defense and balanced offense, the Mariners seem built more for the long haul than a short series.

Only one starter, Freddy Garcia, has the ability to dominate; the lineup tails off beyond Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Martinez, John Olerud and Bret Boone, and until left-hander Arthur Rhodes, who was shelled for seven runs in two league championship series games against the Yankees last October, proves he can handle playoff pressure, there will be some bullpen concerns.

The Mariners also may be increasing their burden as they pile up regular-season victories. Just ask the Yankees, who went 114-48 in 1998.

"We were in that situation, and it's a strange feeling when the [regular] season is over," right fielder Paul O'Neill said. "Because when you go into the playoffs, it goes back to zero. None of those wins can help you. We went into the playoffs in '98 fearful of not winning it all, because it would have all meant nothing.

"When you're expected to win, that can be the hardest thing. Everything has happened for Seattle this year, but when you get to the playoffs, it's 0-0. And they haven't played an important game since May."

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As hot as the A's have been since late June, they could have problems in September and beyond if Jason Isringhausen doesn't right himself. The closer gave up a two-run homer to Juan Gonzalez in the eighth inning Wednesday, collecting his major league-leading ninth blown save.

Isringhausen said he's throwing the ball as well as he did last year, when he had a 3.78 ERA and 33 saves, but his mistakes have been coming at the wrong times. In the six games he has gone into in the eighth, he has blown four saves.

"I have to keep it all in perspective," Isringhausen said. "It's a very humbling game. I feel like I'm pitching well, but the so-called closer stats aren't there because I'm getting burned by one pitch here or there."

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Cal Ripken Jr., who turned 41 Friday, was hitting .210 with four homers in 176 at-bats when he announced his retirement on June 19. Since, he's hitting .328 with eight homers and has lifted his average to .269.

"I wish he had announced his retirement about two months earlier," Oriole Manager Mike Hargrove said.

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