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PENNANT PUSH With the prelims out of the way, we baseball junkies can get down to some serious palm-sweating. The World Series is less than two weeks away and we’re guaranteed a new champion. Here’s a look at the surviving clubs (with a dose of historical perspective for your analytical pleasure).
  • CHICAGO CUBS -- Must have something to do with that brushback pitch Mars through our beloved planet a few weeks ago. The Cubbies THIS CLOSE to the Fall Classic. Here’s a secret: no mirrors involved. Chicago has the inside track in any seven-game series as long as Mark Prior and Kerry Wood can take the mound. They’ve got the shakiest bullpen left, but with a pair of horses like Prior and Wood, the weakness is easy to hide. I’m interested to see how the legendary Sammy Sosa performs on the brightest stage of his career. The Cubs have a gritty lineup, much improved since their trade-deadline acquisitions (Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Randall Simon). Another important factor in the Cubs’ favor is experience. Veterans like Moises Alou, Eric Karros, and Damian Miller aren’t going to be rattled by the bright lights and the great expectations of Cub fans far and wide. On top of their pitching, depth, and experience, Chicago has home field advantage. An upstream swim for the Marlins. We all know the Cubs are in search of their first pennant since 1945, their first world championshp since 1908. But did you know that between 1906 and 1945 the North Siders took home 10 pennants? They were the Yankees of the National League!
  • FLORIDA MARLINS -- That was some weekend Pudge Rodriguez had, eh? He’s mobbed by his teammates Friday night after delivering a game-winning hit in extra innings, then he gets mobbed again -- this time in his catcher’s gear -- after tagging out J.T. Snow to eliminate the defending National League champion Giants. The euphoria in south Florida hasn’t come overnight. The Marlins have played outstanding baseball since septuagenarian Jack McKeon took over the managerial duties two months into the season. Florida incorporates that rarest of commodities in modern baseball: speed. With centerfielder Juan Pierre (65 stolen bases) and second baseman Luis Castillo, the Marlins will put pressure on Chicago’s hurlers that might lead to some fat pitches for Rodriguez and Derrek Lee. (Local fans will have a hero in Lee, MVP of the Southern League in 1996 as a Memphis Chick.) The Marlins are one of two wild-card teams to have won the World Series. (The Angels did so last year.) So . . . they could win a second world championship despite never having finished in first place.
  • NEW YORK YANKEES -- Jeter, Bernie Baseball, Clemens, Pettitte, Wells, and Rivera. Yaaaaaawn. What can be said about the Mighty Pinstripes that hasn’t already? With a payroll that would make royalty blush ($180 million), this is the team that should win the Series . . . every year. The Yanks showed against Minnesota that they can bounce back from defeat and, in hostile territory, right the ship. Their lineup remains formidable, with complementary players -- Aaron Boone, Nick Johnson, Juan Rivera -- who can be difference makers in tight games. And keep this intangible in mind: Roger Clemens and David Wells know this is their last hurrah. Two money pitchers who thrive on meaningful baseball. The American Leaugue pennant still must be won in Yankee Stadium. The Boston/Oakland survivor will need a deep breath. Another world championship would give the Yankees only one fewer title than the Green Bay Packers (12) and the Boston Celtics (16) . . . combined.
  • OAKLAND/BOSTON -- For the sake of competitive integrity (read: TV ratings), baseball needs the Red Sox to finish their comeback in Oakland. With Mark Mulder and now Tim Hudson on the shelf, Oakland’s vaunted pitching triumvirate has been reduced to a lonely Barry Zito. Should Zito beat the Sox in Game 5, you have to wonder how the A’s will orchestrate their rotation against the Yankees. Only the Yankees have won more AL pennants than the Athletics’ 14 (eight of those from the franchise’s days in Philadelphia). A world championship would make the A’s only the second franchise to win 10. The Red Sox will send Pedro Martinez to the hill for the decisive game, so they should take the field with more than a little confidence. Their lineup is vastly superior to Oakland’s, with former journeymen like Bill Mueller and David Ortiz now stars alongside Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez. Will they have enough muscle to overcome Zito? Remember, these are still the Red Sox. They’re fighting history, too. Boston may not have won a championship since 1918, but they’ve sure had their chances. They lost Game 7 of the Series in 1946, ‘67, ‘75, and ‘86.
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