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Why the lack of pennant races comes at a bad time for baseball

Quick, somebody get Bud Selig an honest to goodness pennant race, lest baseball in September gets completely subsumed by the cultural phenomenon that is football in America. On September 1, six of the eight playoff spots already were at least 95 percent secured, according to coolstandings.com, and the other two were at least 80 percent wrapped up.

Maybe the Angels (3 ½ back) can hang with the Rangers. Maybe the Tigers really aren't good enough to pull away from the mediocrities that are the White Sox and Indians (5 ½ back). Otherwise, we still have a month of baseball that means virtually nothing.

No other sport can deliver the day-to-day excitement of a pennant race, but apparently now neither can baseball. There is no quick answer to why this is happening -- although the I-95 Corridor (Philadelphia, New York and Boston) continues to be the greatest concentration of power, where postseason spots are locked up in the winter, and the defending champion Giants were doomed the day Buster Posey went down in May.

This is an anomalous year that comes at a bad time for baseball -- when the healthy appetite for football was made larger by the faux drama of the lockout. A preseason football game between the Saints and Raiders -- populated by many players about to be cut in a game that didn't matter at all -- drew more viewers than the average audience for the 2010 NLCS between the Giants and the Phillies.

But comparing anything to football is like comparing any author to Stephen King. If you compare baseball to baseball, the sport is doing well. Attendance has held steady (down just 14 fans per game entering September). Viewership for national games on Fox and ESPN is up between four and nine percent while games on TBS have held steady.

But baseball needs a bigger inventory of meaningful games in September as a run-up to the postseason. A second wild card in each league would help somewhat -- not so much because people would get geeked about the Cardinals and Giants in a slow-speed race to 87 wins to be the second best second-place team in their league, but because a premium goes back on finishing in first place. (Of course, this holds true only with a one-game knockout between the two wild card teams in each league, not a three-game buzzkill series.)

The second wild card should be added because baseball feels it's a good idea to put more teams in the postseason, not just as a knee-jerk reaction to one hollow September.

Finally, this may turn out to be the least exciting September of the wild card era, but it's nothing extraordinarily rare in baseball. In 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990, three of the four playoff spots had cushions of at least five games on Sept. 5.

Back in baseball's "Golden Era," in back-to-back years, 1957 and 1958, no team began September less than 5 ½ games behind the league leader. In 1953, both league leaders held leads of at least 9 ½ games on Sept. 1. And in six of the nine seasons between 1931-39, nobody was within five games of the leader on Sept. 1.

After A.J. Burnett coughed up nine runs to the Orioles last week, Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild began a private conversation with the righthander like this: "You might not like to hear what I'm about to say, but . . . "

It was reminiscent of what happens when someone says, "With all due respect," or "Don't take it the wrong way . . . " In short, this was intervention time for the Yankees' underachieving righthander. It was time for Burnett -- at the age of 34 and after 304 major league starts -- to at last start to learn how to transition from a thrower to a pitcher.

What Rothschild proposed was something radical: a major mechanical change, not just a tweak, in the middle of the season. The short version is that Rothschild took away much of the rotation swing that triggered Burnett's delivery -- an upper body twist in which his hands would pull behind him and lead his body. He worked with Burnett to hold his hands in front of his chest. He wanted less rotation in the delivery and more "downhill" action.

It began with a dry bullpen session -- pantomiming the delivery -- then one heavy bullpen session in Baltimore and one light bullpen session in Boston. The second one was said to be "electric."

And for one night, the transformation of Burnett officially was underway. He permitted Boston two runs in 5 1/3 innings in what was a 4-2 New York win. But the triumph is that now the Yankees have something real to believe in their hope that Burnett can be a legitimate postseason option behind CC Sabathia.

Burnett still has his health, tremendous arm speed and a natural ability to spin the baseball that is as good as most anybody in the game. Of course, Rothschild has been down this road before with Burnett. He worked with him in the winter to reduce the swing of his front leg, an adjustment Burnett took to in spring training but could never apply consistently enough. Until Burnett begins to string together good starts, he will remain a work in progress. And his career as a Yankee so far (32-35, 4.81 ERA, 94 starts, $49.5 million) looks weirdly like that of Oliver Perez as a Met (29-29, 4.71 ERA, 91 starts, $44.8 million).

Asked to describe the magnitude of such an in-season change, Rothschild said, "It's big. It's rare. It's not unheard of, but it's not just some tweak. A.J.'s attitude has been great. He took it and ran with it. He went out and looked at video of some tall pitchers to study how they pitch downhill."

Until Thursday night, the Yankees' rotation choices looked bleak, what with Phil Hughes (career ERA: 4.55) losing his stuff the night before by the fifth inning. In fact, in what was sold as a "bake-off" for a spot in the five-man rotation (the Yankees never were punting Burnett), New York seemed to be choosing the lesser of two evils. In fact, if you put together a list of the worst pitchers in franchise history as ranked by ERA among those who have pitched as much for them as Hughes (430 innings), you would come up with this: Tim Leary (5.12), Hank Johnson (4.84), Burnett (4.81), Ed Wells (4.59) and Hughes (4.55).

But manager Joe Girardi kept telling people before the Thursday game he had "a feeling" that Burnett was going to throw well. But it was that bullpen session in Boston -- Burnett throwing strike after strike, creating a downhill angle with his pitches, and even flashing a much better changeup with splitter-type action -- that had Girardi full of anticipation. The game was just one start for a guy infamous for fits and starts in his career arc. But when it comes to reason for optimism, that one start is one more than they had from Burnett before Thursday.

Yankees-Red Sox games are hazardous to your health. No, not the sleep deprivation caused by the laborious pace of their games. (Last night they took 261 minutes to score six combined runs, and their games are filled with dead time -- conferences, pitchers holding the ball, batters strolling out of the box, etc. -- that needs to be reigned in.)

No, I'm talking about getting players getting hit by pitches. Since 1999, there have been 238 batters hit by pitches in 225 Yankees-Red Sox games. (For those of you scoring at home, Boston pitchers have out-plunked New York pitchers, 142-96.) The latest casualty: New York first baseman Mark Teixeira, who left the game last night after taking a pitch on the right knee.

Compared to all other MLB games since 1999, the rate of hit batters in a Yankees-Red Sox game is 51 percent higher.

And by the way, what in the name of Bob Gibson has happened to the mighty HBP? Hit batters are down for a fifth straight year -- and down 19 percent from just 10 years ago. You just wouldn't know it by watching the combat between the Yankees and Red Sox.

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