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Five key factors to watch for in the September pennant races

SI Now: What to expect in the chase for October baseball
On Friday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated MLB producer Ted Keith and contributor Cliff Corcoran discuss the tight wild card races heading into September, and who the front runners are for each league's MVP award.

As September dawns, three division races (the AL East, the AL West and the NL Central) and all four wild-card races have leads of fewer than seven games. Here are five key factors that will help determine the outcome of each in the regular season's final month:

1) Intra-divisional schedules

The September schedule is always packed with intra-divisional games, which have become more important in 2013 because the new playoff format puts an emphasis on winning a division crown. Playing division rivals so often can be both a blessing and a curse. Consider the AL East contenders, for instance. The Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Orioles will all be able to control their own destiny to a large degree because they'll be playing each other, but that means they will also be playing against opponents with winning records. That gauntlet is bad news for whichever three AL East teams have to battle for a wild-card berth, and good news for the league's other wild-card contenders, who don't face nearly as daunting an intra-division slate.

CORCORAN: The must-attend games of September

2) Minor league call-ups

As of Sunday, clubs could expand their rosters from 25 to up to 40 players. Contenders and rebuilding teams have different motivations about which players to call up, of course, and some franchises won't promote prospects until after the players' minor league affiliates have finished their respective playoff runs.

CORCORAN: Looking at eight top prospects who could be called up

September is a time when teams can improve with both quality and quantity of additional players. The A's could get a power boost from outfielder Michael Choice and the Indians could get rotation depth from Trevor Bauer, while the Reds are getting speed from Billy Hamilton, who can be of enormous help as a pinch runner. Other teams don't need minor league stolen-base record holders like Hamilton to improve their speed options: the Red Sox promoted newly acquired outfielder Quintin Berry, for instance. Any club can promote an extra lefty reliever for situational help.

3) Injury returns

A number of key players could return from injuries to give their clubs a jolt this month: Boston's Clay Buccholz, an early AL Cy Young frontrunner; Rays starter Matt Moore and reliever Jesse Crain, who hasn't pitched for Tampa Bay since being acquired from the White Sox on July 29; Rangers starters Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando; Dodgers centerfielder Matt Kemp; Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz; Pirates closer Jason Grilli and leftfielder Starling Marte; Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook; and potentially at the end of the month, Braves rightfielder Jason Heyward.

With minor league seasons ending, getting these players back up to game speed will be a challenge. Traditional rehab stints won't be available, and instructional leagues and simulated games generally aren't as helpful as live games against advanced competition.

4) Ongoing interleague play

The road clubs in each series will have to adapt to the other league's rules and unfamiliar ballparks during stretch-run games. Granted, these series are not created equal -- facing the Astros or Marlins is different than playing the Rangers, as is the unique experience of playing in mile-high Denver for the first time in three years, as the Red Sox will do on the 24th and 25th.

Here are the contenders playing road interleague games in September: Boston (two games against the Rockies), Pittsburgh (three games against Texas), the Reds (three games against Houston) and the Tigers (three games against the Marlins)

Home interleague games, on the other hand, can be an advantage: AL teams are facing NL clubs who may have a weak DH option; NL clubs are facing AL teams without their regular ninth hitter.

Here are the contenders playing home interleague games in September: the Rangers (three against the Pirates), the Yankees (three against the Giants), the Indians (three against the Mets), St. Louis (three against the Mariners), the Diamondbacks (three against the Blue Jays).

5) Pitcher shutdowns

In an ironic twist, the shutdown of a few young pitchers this month could help the Nationals as they try to make up a 6 ½ game deficit to snare the NL's second wild card spot. A year after Washington's controversial decision to end Stephen Strasburg's season in early September, the Nationals will face three division rivals who have young starters facing premature finishes: Both Florida's Jose Fernandez (a possible NL Rookie of the Year candidate) and the Phillies' Jonathan Pettibone (a 22-year-old with a 4.04 ERA) are reportedly facing shutdowns, and the Mets' Matt Harvey, the NL All-Star starter, is already done after the diagnosis of a tear in his right UCL.

Line Drives

• On Friday night Colorado first baseman Todd Helton cracked two home runs in a game for only the second time since 2007. (He last did it on April 26, 2011.) Helton had 18 multi-homer games from 1999-2001 when he was in the middle of a nine-year stretch as one of the game's most feared hitters. In 2000, for instance, he led the majors in doubles, RBIs, average, slugging, total bases and OPS while leading the NL in hits and on-base percentage. After his two homers on Friday, Helton, a .317 career hitter, had 2,499 hits -- and he got his 2,500th on Sunday.

• It was great to see how alive Pittsburgh's PNC Park was this weekend as the Pirates won another series against the Cardinals to tie St. Louis for first place in the NL Central. Pittsburgh is 10-6 against the Redbirds in 2013. The two teams will meet for the last time this season in a three-game series in St. Louis.

• The best summer trade acquisition has to be the Yankees pickup of Alfonso Soriano (12 HRs, .865 OPS in 34 games), who has given New York a desperately needed boost of righthanded power). But the Red Sox' Jake Peavy is charging hard (3.18 ERA in six starts with a sub-1.00 WHIP).

• The Astros, to no one's surprise, have officially been eliminated from postseason contention.

• The August leaders for OPS begin and end with familiar names but have several unexpected ones in between: 1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers; 2. Scooter Gennett, Brewers; 3. Will Venable, Padres; 4. Mike Trout, Angels; 5. Jayson Werth, Nationals; 6. Jason Castro, Astros; 7. Matt Joyce, Rays; 8. Adrian Beltre, Rangers; 9. Aaron Hill, Diamondbacks; 10. Chris Davis, Orioles.

Three Up, Three Down: Offensive production with RISP

Among the viable playoff contenders -- those within seven games of a playoff spot -- here are the three best and three worst offenses with runners in scoring position.

UP

1. Cardinals

St. Louis has been, by far, the best in RISP situations with a .863 team OPS -- the highest in baseball since 2006. First baseman Allen Craig has a .453 average in 128 RISP at bats, which is third-best all time behind George Brett's 1980 season (.469) and Tony Gwynn's 1997 (.459).

2. Tigers

Detroit's .828 OPS is a distant second to St. Louis's, but it's still the third-best in the majors over the last five years.

3. Orioles

Chris Davis, Manny Machado and Adam Jones all have averages between .336 and .350 with RISP.

DOWN

1. Pirates

Pittsburgh's RISP production could be its Achilles' heel. Not only does its .648 OPS rank 28th in the majors this year, but it also would be the lowest RISP production for a playoff team since the 1983 Dodgers.

2. Nationals

Washington has a .699 OPS with RISP, which ranks 23rd in baseball. Though first baseman Adam LaRoche has had a disappointing season, he has excelled with RISP with a .943 OPS as opposed to a .683 when no one's on base.

3. Dodgers

There aren't many faults with the way Los Angeles is playing, but it ranks only 20th in baseball with a .708 OPS with RISP; only Adrian Gonzalez's superb .969 is above .750 among the Dodgers' regulars.

Trend to track: Doubles in decline

Almost every week there's a chance to highlight another offensive stat in decline. But what's interesting here is that while home runs have fluctuated up and down the last six seasons -- from 1.02 per team per game in 2007, to 1.00 in '08, 1.04 in '09, 0.95 in '10, 0.94 in '11, 1.02 in '12 -- the number of doubles has been declining each season:

2007: 1.89
2008: 1.86
2009: 1.80
2010: 1.75
2011: 1.73
2012: 1.70
2013: 1.69

This suggests that defenses are getting better -- catching more potential two-base hits and holding runners at first, most likely through better positioning -- and so too is pitching, as batting average is at its lowest since 1989. The difference of 0.19 doubles from 2007 to '13 is the difference of each team hitting about one extra double every five games.

Triples, as previously noted, are also in decline, but much more severely. They are at an all-time low this season; the double rate, though declining, is still in the top half of all seasons.

The final out

Last year's AL Manager of the Year vote featured a tight race between the Orioles' Buck Showalter and the Athletics' Bob Melvin, both of whom spearheaded their teams' remarkable rises from obscurity. The race for this year's award doesn't figure to be too tight (with apologies to deserving runner-up Joe Girardi of the Yankees) given what first-year Red Sox manager John Farrell has done in Boston. Farrell has overseen the turnaround from last year's 69-win disaster -- not to mention the previous year's historic September collapse. His club has 82 wins and a 5 ½ game lead in the AL East. Surely that's worth Mike Aviles and David Carpenter, the players the Red Sox traded to the Blue Jays to get Farrell.

Photo: Michael K. Ivins/Getty Images

The Red Sox could get Clay Buchholz back as they try to fend off a crowded field of AL East contenders.

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