Friday September 9th, 2011

This isn't how Bud Selig thought his September was going to go. Two months ago, the National Football League was in danger of losing its season to a lockout, and Major League Baseball was salivating over the thought of its pennant races playing out without competition from its rival league. Instead, the NFL lockout ended in late July and the pennant races largely resolved themselves by the end of August, turning the tables on baseball's dream scenario.

Fortunately for Selig, one race worth watching has materialized: the AL West clash between the defending division champion Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Unlike in the AL East, where the Yankees and Red Sox are jockeying for position but will both make the playoffs, there's no wild card spot to fall back on for the Rangers or the Angels, who were as much as seven games back in mid-August but now trail Texas by just 2 ½ games entering Friday (they are seven games behind Boston for the wild card). The Rangers will be in Anaheim for the season's final series from Sept. 26-28, and this race could well come down to those three games. In the meantime, the Angels will throw their top three pitchers at the visiting Yankees this weekend, while the Rangers welcome the A's to Arlington.

Just because there isn't a plethora of pennant races doesn't mean baseball should be put on the backburner as the NFL season kicks off. In fact, here are five September storylines to keep an eye on:

1. Mariano Rivera's pursuit of the career saves record. That Rivera's ascension to the top of the all-time save list was inevitable makes it no less compelling. Rivera enters the Yankees' weekend series in Anaheim with 598 career saves, just three shy of Trevor Hoffman's record of 601, a number frozen by Hoffman's retirement this past winter. To put those totals in context, Lee Smith is third with 478 saves, just two other men (John Franco and Billy Wagner, both retired) have more than 400, and no other active pitcher has more than Francisco Cordero's 321. The Yankees have 20 games left this season in order for Rivera to get the four saves he needs to break Hoffman's record.

2. Watching the awards. I'll go into more detail when Awards Watch returns on Monday with its lightning round (top three picks for each league for each of the three major player awards each week through the end of the season), but several of these races are still alive. In the National League, Brewers bashers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are battling for MVP. In the AL, there is a matter of philosophy that will help decide the race from among the Red Sox' Adrian Gonzalez, the Yankees' Curtis Granderson (the best players on the best teams), the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista (the most productive player) and perhaps even Tigers' ace Justin Verlander, whose remarkable season has stirred talk that he could become the first pitcher to win an MVP award since 1992.

Verlander has the AL Cy Young on lockdown but in the NL, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw will try to steal the award from reigning winner Roy Halladay. And the AL Rookie of the Year race, which could wind up being between the Rays' Jeremy Hellickson and the Angels' Trumbo, is also yet to be decided and could go down to the season's final week.

3. Postseason rotations. Even teams that are all but assured of a postseason have pressing questions to answer. To wit: Who would the Rangers start in the Division Series? How about the Yankees? The Tigers? The Red Sox' and Braves' postseason rotations will hinge on how some of their starters heal over the next three weeks. For Boston, Josh Beckett is out with a sprained ankle, Erik Bedard is having a start skipped due to a sore knee and Clay Buchholz is a long shot at best to return from the back injury that put him on the shelf in mid-June. In Atlanta, Tommy Hanson (shoulder tear) and Jair Jurrjens (knee) are both shut down and questionable for the postseason. Even the Phillies have to ask themselves if Roy Oswalt and his balky back are clearly a better choice for their fourth starter than rookie Vance Worley, whose 2.85 ERA is nearly a run lower than Oswalt's 3.72. How those teams' starters perform over the next three weeks will have a major impact on how those teams are constructed in October.

4. A first look at some of the game's top prospects. Some of them have already reached the majors. Jesus Montero has hit .353/.450/.706 in five games as the Yankees' designated hitter and looks like he could play an important role in October. Third baseman Brett Lawrie has hit .324/.400/.676 since being called up by the Blue Jays in early August. Desmond Jennings has hit .302/.392/.544 becoming the Rays left fielder in late July. Nineteen-year-old outfielder Mike Trout has hit .295/.380/.614 in part-time work since the Angels recalled him in late August. Julio Teheran got his first major league win in the nightcap of the Braves' double-header on Thursday, while Arodys Vizcaino got a hold in the first game and now has 15 strikeouts in 13 1/3 major league innings. Randall Delgado will start for the Braves Friday night in St. Louis. Jason Kipnis, who hit .279/.347/.603 in 18 games before hitting the disabled list in mid-August, just returned from the DL to reclaim the Indians' second-base job. Reds' catching prospect Devin Mesoraco made his first major league start on Monday.

There's more to come, too. Drew Pomeranz, the top prospect received by the Rockies in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, will make his first major league start on Sunday against Mesoraco's Reds. Among those who could be added to major league rosters in the coming week are pitching prospects Dellin Betances of the Yankees, Matt Moore of the Rays, and Jarrod Parker and Trevor Bauer of the Diamondbacks, the latter of whom the started the year with UCLA and was the No. 3 pick in the draft just three months ago.

5. The return of two of the game's top pitchers. You may have heard about Stephen Strasburg's return to the majors after a year lost to Tommy John surgery. After largely living up to the deafening hype as a rookie last year, Strasburg looked undiminished in his return on Tuesday, averaging nearly 97 miles per hour with his fastball (per and holding the Dodgers to just two hits over five scoreless innings, striking out four and needing just 56 pitches. Strasburg will take his next turn on Sunday against the Astros. Meanwhile, Johan Santana is scheduled to make a rehab start on Friday. If all goes well, his next start will be for the Mets next week. Santana, like Strasburg prior to Tuesday, hasn't thrown a major league pitch in more than a year, in his case because of shoulder capsule surgery performed last September. Santana was the best pitcher in baseball from 2004 to 2008 and still has two guaranteed seasons and $55 million left on his contract.

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