Focus on LeBron. Check out the Tour de France. Start looking at your fantasy football cheat sheets. You can skip the rest of the MLB season, because here's what's going to happen:
Despite its current lofty standing, San Diego will not win the NL West or the NL wild card, as its worst-case scenario comes to pass. Unable to trade Adrian Gonzalez or Heath Bell with his team near the top of the standings, GM Jed Hoyer instead uses some low-level minor leaguers to bolster his sagging offense at the trade deadline, adding a lefty bat to platoon with Scott Hairston in left field and a true shortstop to replace Jerry Hairston. The gains achieved on offense, though, pale in comparison to the losses on the other side of the ledger, as an overachieving rotation stumbles down the stretch. Jon Garland's problems missing bats and keeping the ball in the yard return with a vengeance, while lefties Clayton Richard and Wade LeBlanc see their ERAs rise with their innings totals. The rotation's foibles put more pressure on a deep, but overworked bullpen, which falters just after Labor Day. Even pushing rookie Mat Latos to 32 starts and 190 innings isn't enough to keep the Padres from being caught by the Rockies in mid-September. They eventually finish four games out, and an average of just 21,000 people attend the team's last homestand in September, opening the question of whether it was worth holding on to the team's top trade chits.
The 31-year-old lefty, who was dealt from Cleveland to Philadelphia at last year's deadline and then to Seattle in the offseason, is traded for the fourth time in a year, completing the round-trip back to Ohio as the Reds build a package around 2008 first-round pick Yonder Alonso -- the kind of middle-of-the-order bat the Mariners need -- to add a true No. 1 starter. The trade affirms Walt Jocketty's status as the Don of the Deadline, and when Lee goes CC Sabathia on the NL -- 10-1, 1.44 ERA, six complete games, a handful of Cy Young votes -- it's enough to help the Reds relegate Jocketty's old team, the Cardinals, to second-class citizens in the NL Central. The first postseason game in Great American Ball Park is a sellout, but the Reds, behind Bronson Arroyo, drop a 7-2 decision to the Phillies and are eliminated shortly thereafter.
The Twins, Tigers and White Sox -- all of whom have tied for first in the last two years -- finish 85-77 in the AL Central. The White Sox have a chance to clinch on the last day, but are beaten by Fausto Carmona and the Indians, 4-1. The ladder-style playoff is delayed when torrential rains hit the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, pushing the Twins-White Sox game back to Tuesday. The Sox take advantage of the delay to start John Danks on short rest, rather than Jake Peavy, and are rewarded by eight innings of shutout baseball in a 6-0 win. The next day, however, the stress and travel seem to be too much, as Justin Verlander overpowers them, striking out 12 in seven innings as the Tigers emerge from the pack with a 6-0 win.
The midseason spate of injuries proves to be too much to overcome for the Sox, who fall to eight games out in August before getting everyone healthy and making a push over the last six weeks. Their final mark of 94-68 would lead every division in baseball but their own. With the three best records in baseball all posted by AL East teams, and every advanced tool backing up the idea that these are the three best teams in the game, what analysts have been saying for years has now come to fruition: The real problem MLB faces is three great teams in one division, when even a wild-card won't assure that the best teams make the playoffs. The Red Sox, 94-68 while facing one of the game's toughest schedules, go home; the Tigers, 86-77 against one of the weakest, move on. With one of the game's flagship franchises caught on the wrong side of the problem, calls for changes to league structures, scheduling practices and playoff formats increase throughout the offseason.
After a series of missed calls by umpires lead the highlight shows in September, marring what should be great pennant races with relentless controversies, it becomes apparent that instant replay is the only solution for MLB. While continuing to stonewall in public, commissioner Bud Selig begins work behind the scenes to implement a review system, using a fifth umpire in the booth, for 2011. It will be too late for the Rangers, who finish behind the Angels in the AL West by a single game after being victimized twice in a late-season series by safe/out calls that go the wrong way and would have clearly been overturned by replay. It will also be too late for the Mets, who see a game-winning double on the last batter of their season erroneously ruled a game-saving catch, leaving them on the outside looking in as the Phillies once again edge them for a postseason berth. It is of little consolation to Rangers and Mets fans that their suffering ultimately changes the game for the better.
After the controversies and collapses, the game-saving plays and game-ending hits, it's the Tampa Bay Rays who garner their first world championship, beating the Colorado Rockies four games to three in the best World Series since 2001. The Rays get a huge boost from Adam Dunn, a trade-deadline acquisition who bolsters their lineup down the stretch and who hits four homers in the Series. MVP honors, however, go to Matt Garza, who wins Games 1 and 5 and throws two shutout innings of relief in Game 7, keeping the contest tied at four. As with the 1991 World Series between the Twins and Braves, a matchup derided as a ratings nightmare turns out to be a classic, with six of the seven games in doubt right to the last batter, two extra-inning games, and Ubaldo Jimenez's near-no-hitter in Game 4 that evens the Series at two wins apiece. The Rays complete their rise from industry doormats to champions, and serve as the model for all "small-market" franchises: make good decisions, spend money wisely, catch a break or two, and end your season smelling like cheap champagne and cheaper cigars.
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