Challenged sluggers could decide playoff races
CHICAGO (AP) Two sluggers with lingering questions. A catcher returning from injury. A pitcher headed for a big payday, and baseball's most famous panda.
The final month of the season offers a chance for redemption for Josh Hamilton of the Angels and Bryce Harper of the Nationals. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is back from a right thumb injury, and Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer is putting together a fitting encore to his Cy Young Award season from a year ago.
And then there is third baseman Pablo Sandoval, trying to power the Giants back to the playoffs.
With September in the on-deck circle, here are a couple players to watch in the final weeks of the season and beyond:
ANGEL IN THE OUTFIELD: This has been one strange season for Hamilton, who agreed to a $125 million, five-year contract with the Angels in December 2012.
The 2010 AL MVP was working on a nice start when he tore a ligament on his left thumb on a headfirst slide into first on April 8 in Seattle. That shelved the slugger until June, and he wasn't quite the same when he returned.
''I think my injury affected me more so than anything,'' Hamilton said recently. ''I was feeling good the first week of the season, then I had the injury and there was the whole process of getting through that and then going through the process of getting back to swinging.''
Hamilton took a couple days off earlier in August, and manager Mike Scioscia said the left fielder was struggling with his confidence level. It looks as if that little break might have done the trick.
The 33-year-old Hamilton singled and scored in Sunday's 8-1 victory over Oakland, completing a four-game sweep. He could play a key role down the stretch as the Angels try to hold off the Athletics in the AL West.
''I think I'm at a point right now where, OK, I've got a month left. Can I be the player I want to be? Can I be the player they paid me to be?'' Hamilton said. ''Yeah, I can. How am I going to approach that? I'm going to take it one game at a time and continue to remind myself to cut it loose.''
BEING BRYCE HARPER: On the other side of the country, Harper has dealt with many of the problems Hamilton has had this year.
Harper injured his left thumb on a headfirst slide into third on a triple against San Diego on April 25. He had surgery and was sidelined until the end of June.
The 21-year-old Harper also struggled when he returned, and Washington manager Matt Williams left open the possibility of a minor league stint when he was asked about the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year during a radio interview. But he ruled out the idea later that same day.
After Williams' spirited response to the minor league question during a pregame press session, Harper showed why he is such a key player for the NL East leaders. He hit .309 with four homers and 11 RBIs during a torrid 18-game stretch for the Nationals that included a 10-game winning streak.
Washington is in prime playoff position, but Harper could be the difference in a long playoff run or a quick postseason exit.
CATCHING HEAT: The tight NL Central race got a jolt this weekend with the return of Molina to the Cardinals.
In addition to his leadership and defense behind the plate, Molina is a .284 career hitter who usually slots into the heart of St. Louis' lineup. He had been on the disabled list since July 10 with a torn thumb ligament that required surgery.
Molina returned to a new-look pitching staff that has dealt with its share of injuries. The Cardinals traded for starting pitchers John Lackey and Justin Masterson while Molina was out, and his presence could have a bigger effect on the pair of important right-handers than the lineup.
MAD MAX: The Tigers got David Price in a deadline trade, and then lost Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez to injuries. Meanwhile, Scherzer just keeps humming along.
The right-hander is 15-5 with a 3.26 ERA, to go along with 220 strikeouts in 187 2-3 innings. Saturday's loss to Chris Sale and the White Sox was just his second in his last 13 starts.
Scherzer, 30, and the Tigers are hoping to turn away the Royals and Indians for the AL Central title. But the successful sequel to his Cy Young Award-winning season from a year ago also could make Scherzer a ton of money over the winter, when he is eligible for free agency.
KUNG FU PANDA TIME: The Giants are hanging in there in the NL West, and Sandoval is a big reason why.
The third baseman, who has won two World Series titles with San Francisco, had three hits and three RBIs in Sunday's 15-5 victory over Milwaukee. He hit .336 with three homers and 18 RBIs in August.
The Giants also are in the mix for a wild-card spot, and they have experience with unlikely playoff runs deep into October. Sandoval was the World Series MVP when San Francisco won the championship in 2012. He is a .325 hitter with six home runs in 22 career postseason games, making this time of year look almost routine.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap