Tuesday September 1st, 2015

Even though this year's regular season extends through Oct. 4, today, Sept. 1 marks the official start of the home stretch. No team has more than 33 games remaining on its schedule; several, including the American League West-leading Astros, have just 30 left to play. While we'll have plenty of pennant race coverage this month, here’s a quick look at seven other key storylines to follow over the remainder of the regular season.

1. Notable players returning from the disabled list

The trading deadlines have passed, but that doesn’t mean that teams can no longer upgrade their rosters. September call-ups can be a source of fresh talent, and even more impactful can be the return of established players from the DL. Among the key players due back to contending clubs this month are Royals leftfielder Alex Gordon (groin), Astros rightfielder George Springer (wrist) and Pirates starter A.J. Burnett (elbow). Kansas City, which has a 13-game lead in the AL Central, will be looking to keep Gordon healthy for the playoffs, but Houston, which has a slimmer four-game lead in the West, is looking to Springer to help it nail down the division. Burnett, who has said he will retire after this season, isn’t expected back until mid-month, which makes it unlikely that he will be able to help Pittsburgh catch the Cardinals in the NL Central, but he could have an impact in the playoffs if the Pirates can get past the Wild-Card Game.

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St. Louis is hoping to get Matt Holliday (right quad), Matt Adams (quad), Jon Jay (wrist), Randal Grichuk (elbow) and possibly even Adam Wainwright (Achilles tendon) off the DL this month, but all seem to be at least two weeks away from a return after Adams's recent setback in his rehabilitation. Other key players currently on the DL for contenders who could return in September include the DodgersHowie Kendrick and Yasiel Puig (hamstrings), the GiantsJoe Panik (back) and Hunter Pence (oblique), the TwinsAaron Hicks (hamstring) and Phil Hughes (back), and the MetsLucas Duda (back) and Steven Matz (lat), the last of whom will be activated on Tuesday and could help alleviate some innings concerns in New York’s young rotation as early as this weekend.

Perhaps the most compelling return however, could be that of Blue Jays righty Marcus Stroman, who was believed lost for the season when he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee during spring training. Stroman has thrown a pair of simulated games and is due to start a rehab assignment this week. It was assumed that if he returned it would be as a reliever, but Toronto manager John Gibbons said on Friday that Stroman could slot back into the rotation. With the Blue Jays and Yankees locked in MLB’s closest divisional race (Toronto has a one-game lead in the loss column entering Tuesday’s action), Stroman’s return could prove decisive.

Oh, and some guy named Giancarlo Stanton could be activated on Friday.

2. Can Matt Williams and the Nationals turn it around?

Over their last four series and against four of the worst teams in the NL, the Nationals have gone 8–4 to pull themselves back over .500, but they still managed to lose another game in the NL East standings to the first-place Mets, then dropped another on Monday with an 8–5 loss to the Cardinals. Heavily-favored to repeat as division champions before the season, Washington is now six games behind New York in the loss column with 32 games left to play. Six of those are against the team they’re chasing and another 21 are against the sub-.500 Braves (7), Marlins (7), Phillies (6) and Reds (1). However, the Mets have things even easier, getting a chance to bury Washington in those six head-to-head games and playing 22 of their other 25 contests against the same collection of patsies—Atlanta (7), Miami (6), Philadelphia (5) and Cincinnati (4).

Terry Collins and Mets looking to avoid another September collapse

The likelihood of a Nationals comeback seems slim at best, and confidence in Williams’s ability to rally his players—or simply to avoid sabotaging them via a combination of negligence and strategic incompetence—has never been lower, at least outside of the organization. What's worse, with the news that outfielder Denard Span is now out for the year, Washington doesn't have any more key players coming back from the DL. Still, there are signs of life. Over those last 13 games, August’s returnees have found their strokes: Jayson Werth is hitting .308/.410/.577, Anthony Rendon is at .349/.429/.512 and Ryan Zimmerman is slashing .310/.418/.667.

With the Nats eight games behind the Cubs for the second wild-card spot in the NL, there are only two ways this can end. The Nationals can rally and reclaim the division, returning to the Division Series and saving both significant face and Williams’s job, or they can go down as a gigantic disappointment and earn their manager the pink slip that many, myself included, think is already overdue.

3. David Ortiz’s pursuit of 500 homers

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Remember back in early June when Ortiz looked finished for the umpteenth time in his career? Since snapping a 17-game homerless streak on June 11, he has hit .306/.401/.649 with 23 home runs in 287 plate appearances. He’s now hitting .267/.356/.525 on the year, good for a 135 OPS+ that ranks 11th in the AL with a slugging percentage that ranks seventh. Thanks to a flurry of home runs over the weekend—three in four games from Friday to Monday—he now has 495 on his career, just five shy of the 500 milestone. Given that he has homered seven or more times in each of the last three months, Ortiz seems like a lock to reach 500 before the end of the season. If he does, he’ll become the 27th man to accomplish that feat, the first since Albert Pujols last April, and likely the last for several years—no other active player has more than 36-year-old Adrian Beltre’s 408.

4. The race to the bottom: Who will get the top overall pick in next year’s draft?

The Phillies seemed to have this sewn up before opening the second half with what could prove to be an unfortunate hot streak. Entering Tuesday’s action, Philadelphia (52–80) is just one game worse than the Marlins (53–79) on the season and has just one fewer win than the Rockies (53–76), two fewer than the Braves (54–77) and Reds (55–76) and three fewer than the Brewers (55–75). The top pick will clearly go to an NL team (the under-achieving Athletics, who have the worst record in the AL, have already won six more games than the Phillies), but which one is far from clear.

5. Can the Astros and Cubs complete their ahead-of-schedule emergence with playoff berths?

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Chicago was supposed to be a contender in 2016, Houston in '17. Instead, both made the leap this year and head into the home stretch looking every bit like postseason clubs. Per Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds, the Cubs, currently leading the Giants by six games in the loss column for the NL’s second wild-card spot, have a 92.9% chance of reaching the postseason; the Astros, who have a four-game lead in the AL West and a five-game lead over the third-place team in the wild card, have a 98.1% chance. Still, we’ve seen surprising teams fade down the stretch before, with last year’s Brewers and the 2010 Padres being two that leap to mind, and we’ve seen catastrophic collapses in that span as well, the 2011 Red Sox and Braves being the most notable examples there.

Chicago and Houston are both young, largely home-grown teams who have spent the entire decade as also-rans (neither franchise has fielded a winning team since 2009). That could make them susceptible not only to the increased pressure of a September pennant race, but also to the simple fatigue of a six-month season. Chicago's Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, and Houston's Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Preston Tucker and Vince Velasquez are all players who have never played deep into September before. Can those players deliver often enough to help secure a spot on the playoffs for their teams?

6. Can Paul Goldschmidt capture the Triple Crown?

The last National Leaguer to win the traditional hitting Triple Crown was Cardinals leftfielder Joe “Ducky” Medwick in 1937. Seventy-eight years later, stealth MVP candidate Goldschmidt—playing for a team that came into existence 23 years after Medwick’s death in 1975—has a chance to break that drought. Heading into Tuesday’s action, Goldschmidt leads Colorado’s Nolan Arenado by one RBI for the NL lead in that category (96), trails Bryce Harper by just four points of batting average (.325 to .329) and is five home runs off the NL lead currently shared by Harper and Carlos Gonzalez, both of whom have 31.

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A Triple Crown is a long shot, to be sure, particularly given Goldschmidt's deficit in home runs after a prolonged dry spell on Harper’s part (just two home runs in his last 30 games). With the Nationals facing weaker competition down the stretch, Harper seems likely to have another power surge, which could extinguish Goldschmidt’s Triple Crown chances on two-fronts, not to mention his MVP hopes. It’s also worth noting that the Nationals and Rockies both have more games remaining than the Diamondbacks (32 and 33, respectively, to Arizona’s 31). Still, the chance is there, and it bears watching.

7. Can the Blue Jays snap baseball’s longest active playoff drought?

They can, and they will. Baseball Prospectus gives the Blue Jays a 99.3% chance of making the playoffs, the best odds of any team in the AL after the Royals, who are 100% locks; in the NL, only the Cardinals and Pirates have better odds for a playoff berth. The near-certainty of Toronto’s advancement to the postseason shouldn’t take away from the significance of the accomplishment, however. Put simply, the Blue Jays are the only one of baseball’s 30 teams that has not made the playoffs since the 1994 strike. In fact, they’re the only team in baseball not to have reached the playoffs this century, with the Mariners, who last made it in 2001, the runner-up in regular-season futility.

This could prove to be a transformative season for Toronto, which is already averaging more fans per game than in any season since 1997, ranking 12th in the majors with 31,959 fans per game and drawing 46,000-plus in each of its last eight home games. With Mark Shapiro replacing the retiring Paul Beeston as team president and inheriting a star-studded–first-place team, the Blue Jays have risen to the top of a weakened AL East. It remains to be seen how long they will stay there, but for a franchise and a city that hasn’t seen postseason baseball since Joe Carter homered off Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series, there is no bigger story this year than the return of postseason baseball to Toronto.

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