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The Strike Zone

Top 10 September storylines to watch

Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett, Pirates Pie oh my: The celebrations are just beginning for Russell Martin, A.J. Burnett and the Pirates. (Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports)

The final month of the 2013 season is underway, and while there might be less suspense than we'd prefer with regards to the postseason field -- nine teams currently have at least a 95 percent chance of playing into October according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds -- that doesn't mean there's a shortage of stories to follow in September. Here's a selection of the month's top 10 storylines:

1. The end of the Pirates' long drought

Since winning the NL East three straight times from 1990 to '92, the Pirates have not only failed to make the playoffs, but they've also failed to crack .500 for 20 straight seasons. That streak of futility, the longest in any major North American team sport, is about to end. On Monday, Pittsburgh won its 80th game, surpassing the high-water mark of the team's inglorious run (set in 1997 and matched last year), and leaving the Pirates just one victory short of clinching .500. They Bucs have 25 games to not only secure a winning record, but also to make the playoffs (they currently have a 99.9 percent chance of reaching the postseason). Though they've gone just 29-27 since the beginning of July, their recent additions of right fielder Marlon Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau have strengthened the lineup. The impending return of closer Jason Grilli from a forearm strain should help as well.

LEMIRE: The five X-factors that will help decide the playoff races

2. The three-way race in the NL Central

The NL's most hotly-contested division bears watching given the likelihood that it will yield both of the league's wild-card teams. Entering Tuesday's action, Pittsburgh (80-57) holds a one-game lead over the Cardinals (79-58) and a 3 1/2-game lead over the Reds (77-61). The BP odds narrowly favor the Bucs to win the division (44.2 percent to the St. Louis's 41.0 percent), and they give just a 2.1 percent chance for another NL team -- either the Diamondbacks or Nationals -- to crash the postseason party. Cincinnati and the Pirates play each other six times over the seasons' final nine games, while the Cardinals, after their final series against Pittsburgh (Sept. 6-8), have something of a cakewalk: six games against the Brewers and three apiece against the Mariners, Rockies, Nationals and Cubs.

CORCORAN: Must-attend games that will decide playoff spots

3. The A's/Rangers battle in the AL West

Last year, the A's overcame a five-game deficit with 10 to play to snatch the AL West flag away from the Rangers -- who had led the division since April 9 -- on the season's final day. This season, the two teams have jockeyed for position in more balanced fashion, with Texas holding at least a share of first place 92 times, and Oakland doing so 71 times. On Monday, the A's opened a three-game series against the Rangers in Oakland with a 4-2 victory, putting the two teams into a tie for the sixth time this year.

Both teams have struggled with injuries, but are in better shape of late. In the past week, the A's have gotten pitchers Bartolo Colon and Brett Anderson back from the disabled list, with the latter working in relief. They also shored up their decimated catching corps by reacquiring Kurt Suzuki from the Nationals on Aug. 23; he's gone 7-for-18 with three extra base hits since. Meanwhile, the Rangers activated DH/first baseman Lance Berkman (out since July 6) and pitcher Neftali Feliz (out since May 18, 2012) from the disabled list on Sept. 1. The two teams will meet in one more three-game series, in Texas from Sept. 13-15.

4. Miguel Cabrera's attempt to top his Triple Crown-winning season and secure a second straight MVP award

Last year, the Tigers slugger became the first player since 1967, and just the 14th since 1900, to lead his league in batting average (.339), home runs (44) and RBI (139). With just under four weeks to go, he has a very good chance to improve upon all those numbers, in addition to improving on his on-base and slugging percentages (.393 and .606, the latter a league-leading mark as well).

To become the first player ever to win a second consecutive Triple Crown, Cabrera will have to come from behind in a major category, just as he did last year, when he trailed in both batting average and home runs in September. This year, his 43 home runs are four fewer than Baltimore's Chris Davis. Cabrera does top the AL with 130 RBI and he's hitting .358/.449/.681, good for the league lead in all three categories (the so-called slash-stat Triple Crown). His 6.9 WAR is short of last year's 7.3, and he may not catch Mike Trout (8.2), but so long as he can stay in the lineup -- something he's had difficulty doing over the past six weeks due to a variety of ailments -- he could bring home more hardware this winter.

5. Chris Davis' pursuit of Roger Maris' AL single-season home run record

The 27-year-old Orioles slugger leads the majors with 47 home runs. He's hit just three in his past 17 games, though, and has fallen off the pace to surpass the 61 homers that Maris hit in 1961. (The three men who bested Maris's record -- Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- all played in the National League.) At the moment, Davis projects to finish with 56 home runs, but his penchant for hitting them in bunches -- seven in a six-game span late last year, homers in four straight games to start this season, seven in a nine-game stretch in mid-June, and so on -- could get him back on track in a hurry. Given that his top output for any month is 12, he faces an uphill battle, but even if he doesn't hit the mark he can still help Baltimore to a playoff spot, or himself to an MVP award.

6. Clayton Kershaw's pursuit of the NL Cy Young and MVP awards

As I pointed out recently, Kershaw's strong second half has enhanced his case to sweep the NL's two major awards, something no pitcher in that league has done since 1968; in the interim, seven AL pitchers have done so, the last of whom was the Tigers' Justin Verlander in 2011. Even after being roughed up for five runs by the Rockies on Monday, Kershaw owns a league-best 1.89 ERA; he also leads in innings (209) strikeouts (201) and Wins Above Replacement (7.2), outdistancing the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (7.0) and every other position player in the league.

CORCORAN: Examining the big debates in the AL and NL MVP races

7. The final month of Mariano Rivera's stellar career

Despite a notable hiccup last month -- a streak of three straight blown saves for the first time in his 19-year career -- Rivera has excelled at age 43. He has a 2.16 ERA and a 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio to go along with 39 saves, increasing his record total to 647. His farewell tour has been something special to behold, not only with opposing teams paying tribute by bestowing gifts upon him but with the man himself taking time to meet with team employees and fans at each stop -- a class act to the very end.

The only question now is whether Rivera will get a chance to add to his postseason record of 42 saves. The Yankees are 2 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot and in danger of missing the playoffs for just the second time in his career; their BP odds of Rivera playing into October are just 11.0 percent.

GALLERY: Mariano Rivera farewell tour gifts

8. The NL Rookie of the Year battle between Jose Fernandez, Julio Teheran and Yasiel Puig

When writing about the Senior Circuit's rookie race less than two weeks ago, colleague Cliff Corcoran declared that Fernandez, the Marlins' phenom, "deserve[s] to win in a landslide." Indeed, it's tough to assail his credentials. He's an electrifying 21-year-old righty who leads the league in strikeout rate (9.8 per nine), and ranks third in both ERA (2.33) and WAR (5.5). The one thing that could leave the door open for another candidate is his impending shutdown; with 158 2/3 innings under his belt, he has just two starts and a maximum of 12 innings remaining before Florida wraps up on him.

The 22-year-old Teheran hasn't been quite as strong as Fernandez, but he does have a 3.01 ERA, 8.3 strikeouts per nine and 3.1 WAR -- all tops among Braves starters -- in 161 1/3 innings. As he nears his previous career high of 164 1/3 innings (set in 2011 between the minors and majors), Atlanta plans to push back his next start to Sept. 10. In all likelihood, he'll still be standing when the season ends, and could close the gap on Fernandez.

Less likely to be reined in -- in any sense of the word -- is the 22-year-old Puig, who entered Monday hitting .351/.411/.564 with 14 homers in just 80 games. Even as controversy swirls around him, the human highlight film has found a way to help the Dodgers in some capacity virtually every day. Take this past weekend's series against the Padres, which began one day after manager Don Mattingly had pulled him from Thursday's game against the Cubs for a lack of preparedness. Puig went 4-for-5 in a 9-2 rout of San Diego on Friday, threw out a runner at home in 2-1 win on Saturday (offsetting his 0-for-4 at the plate with three strikeouts) and hit the go-ahead homer in another 2-1 win on Sunday.

Despite not debuting until June 3, after Los Angeles had played exactly one-third of its season, Puig's 4.7 WAR leads the team's position players and is tied for eighth among all major league outfielders. Oh, and the Dodgers are 57-23 (.713) in games in which he has played.

9. The returns of Clay Buchholz and Matt Moore

The Red Sox have the American League's best record (82-57) and a 5 1/2-game lead on the Rays (75-60) despite the fact that Buchholz, their most effective starter this year, hasn't pitched in a game since June 8. When he did pitch, he was outstanding, with a 1.71 ERA and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 12 starts. But trapezius and shoulder troubles sent him to the DL. While the addition of Jake Peavy (3.18 ERA in six starts) and the improvement of Jon Lester (2.56 ERA in eight second-half starts) has taken the pressure off John Lackey and Felix Doubront, the team's postseason rotation would be more formidable if Buchholz could return to something near his early season form. He's planning to make one more rehab start before rejoining Boston on Sept. 10 -- against Tampa Bay, no less.

As for Moore, after tossing a two-hit shutout in Fenway Park on July 22, he made just one more start before going on the DL due to elbow soreness. He's scheduled to return against the Angels on Tuesday night. In 21 starts, he has a 3.41 ERA while striking out 8.5 per nine innings, tops among Rays starters. His return to the starting five alongside David Price, Chris Archer and Alex Cobb means that either Roberto Hernandez (4.95 ERA), Jeremy Hellickson (5.21 ERA) or rookie Jake Odorizzi (5.09 ERA in four starts and one relief appearance) will have to fill one spot instead of two, and can be dropped if the team makes the playoffs.

10. The potential resolution of the Mike Scioscia/Jerry Dipoto clash in Anaheim

Last week -- with the Angels (64-72) headed for just their second sub-.500 finish since 2003 and their fourth straight missed postseason -- a rumor surfaced that owner Arte Moreno would shake things up by dismissing either his manager (Scioscia, on the job since '00 and signed through '18) or his general manager (Dipoto, on the job since November '11), who are rumored to have clashed over personnel and philosophies.

Despite signing big-ticket free agents Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson -- both Pujols and Hamilton have been extremely disappointing thus far -- over the past two offseasons and reaping the benefits of Trout's historic rise, the Angels' stars-and-scrubs roster has become less competitive. The situation may not be resolved in September at all, but a respectable showing could strengthen Scioscia's hand, while a continued slide could spell the exit of the longest-tenured manager in the majors.
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