It's that time of year when rosters expand, breathing constricts and urgency, a foreign, unwelcome element through the breezy days of summer, changes how baseball games are played, managed and remembered. September baseball, the official start of the pennant race, arrives tomorrow. This time it is unlike anything you've ever seen before.
The addition of a second wild card in each league has created more of everything: more teams in contention, more meaningful games, more chance for tiebreakers and more memorable moments. No one can be quite sure how the jumble of teams might unravel.
Today, with about 83 percent of the season done with, half the teams in baseball still have a shot at the postseason. (Apologies to the Diamondbacks and Mariners, teams with losing records that fell below my cutlines.) Fifteen teams competing for 10 spots -- among them the unusual subsets of three of the six lowest payrolls in baseball (Rays, Pirates, Athletics), four teams that haven't won a playoff series in 14 years or more (Reds, Orioles, Pirates, Nationals) and six teams that had losing records last year (White Sox, Athletics, Orioles, Reds, Nationals, Pirates).
Meanwhile, the big-moneyed Phillies and Red Sox, long gone from contention, are cast in the unusual, awkward role of spoilers.
The best part about September is the unpredictability of it all. But to help you sort through the possibilities, if not to keep your breathing a bit easier, here is what to look for in the wildest September yet:
1. Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg will be shut down after two or three more starts. GM Mike Rizzo admirably will stick to his plan to protect the future of the franchise and the health and earning power of Strasburg. (Mark Prior, the prequel to Strasburg without an innings limit, wound up making $12.8 million in the big leagues because of injuries, or about half of what Joe Blanton has made to date in his nine seasons.)
Rizzo could have been more creative about managing Strasburg's innings in the second half to get him into October, but Strasburg isn't Justin Verlander, either, especially this deep into the year. He has thrown six innings or less in 21 of his 26 starts, never seen the eighth inning this year and in his past 12 starts is 6-5 with a 3.80 ERA. His team is 6-6 in those 12 starts.
2. The Yankees will sweat. Okay, it's not very likely, but there is an extreme scenario in which New York could miss the postseason: If the team that is 18-21 in its past 39 games plays .500 ball the rest of the way (16-16), New York winds up with 91 wins and is smack in a muddled wild card fight. More likely, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Andy Pettitte return from injuries and the Yankees are dancing.
You won't have to wait long to find out about the AL East title. Starting tonight, the Yankees play 13 of their next 16 games against the Orioles and Rays.
3. The Orioles can't possibly stay this lucky. Baltimore has been outscored by 24 runs, but it is charging toward October because of one of the flukiest stats in history: It is 24-6 in games decided by one run. The Orioles can't keep it up -- not .800 baseball in one-run games. If they do, they will shatter the record for the best winning percentage in one-run games in a full season: .733, a record that has stood for 104 years (1908 Pirates).
The Orioles also could smash the record for fewest one-run losses in a full season: 10, by the 1986 Red Sox, 1998 Yankees and, oddly, 2006 Blue Jays. Yes, the Orioles hit home runs late, their bullpen is very good and manager Buck Showalter is detail obsessive, all of which help Baltimore in close games. But 24-6? That's just crazy.
4. Dylan Bundy will impact September; Billy Hamilton will not. The Orioles did a superb job getting Bundy, 19, through his first full season (9-3, 2.08 ERA) with 103 2/3 innings -- which allows the righthander to help out Baltimore down the stretch.
Bundy is on the Orioles' 40-man roster, but Hamilton, the record-breaking speedster, is not on the Reds' roster. In fact, the Reds don't need to put him on the roster next year, either. Why is that important? Cincinnati would risk losing a player to make room for Hamilton and start his service time clock early just to have him around to pinch run. Hamilton, who set a new record this year with 154 stolen bases at two levels of the minors, would be more than your average pinchrunner, but the Reds don't believe that the risk/reward calculation is worth it.
5. The Athletics have a tougher September schedule than the Raiders. Oakland is too deep into the season to be doubted. But its reckoning comes starting Sept. 7. Over those next three weeks, the Raiders have nearly as many home games at the O.com Coliseum (two) as their fellow tenants, the A's (three). In that span Oakland faces 17 of 20 games on the road, including a brutal 10-game trip to Detroit, New York and Texas.
6. Cinderella goes to the ball again. In 16 of the 17 years under the wild-card format, the playoffs have included at least one team that had a losing record in the previous season. Among the six teams vying to go from a losing year to a playoff year, two are virtual locks to be playing in October: the Nationals and Reds. Only two such turnaround teams in the wild card era have won it all: the 2002 Angels and 2003 Marlins.
7. Playing September under different rules will decide a playoff spot. It's one of the dumbest rules in baseball. After playing five months with all teams using 25 players (with the rare and unnecessary 26th player exception for some doubleheaders), September pits teams against one another with different numbers of players. Teams can add up to 15 more players, so managers can wind up with multiple pinch-running specialists, five lefties in the bullpen instead of two, more players than the team on the other side of the field and other inequities.
For instance, with a crowded bench last year for master strategist Tony La Russa, the Cardinals won six games in September using between 18 and 23 players in those wins. They won the NL wild card by one game and went on to win the world championship.
8. The MVPs might be going home rather than to the playoffs. Mike Trout is the frontrunner to be AL MVP, but a collapse by the Angels pitching staff might keep Los Angeles out of the postseason. The next-best candidate, Miguel Cabrera of Detroit, also might not get to the postseason. In the NL, Andrew McCutchen of Pittsburgh and Buster Posey of San Francisco are no locks for October yet.
9. Ryan Braun could become the first NL player in three years to hit 40 home runs. The Brewers outfielder, also an MVP candidate, needs five more homers for 40. The last time the NL went three straight years without anybody hitting 40 home runs was 1984-86. And you still don't think steroids turned the game into a fraud?
In 2001, Barry Bonds hit number 40 in the first game after the All-Star break.
10. The Astros are on pace to lose 113 games, with or without Roger Clemens. They have six games remaining against each of the three NL Central contenders, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Pittsburgh -- all of which become must wins for those teams because Houston is so bad. With 113 losses, the Astros would become one of only six teams ever to lose that many games, and the first in the NL since the 1962 Mets.
And commissioner Bud Selig better be talking now to Astros owner Jim Crane about adding Clemens to a team that already is a joke. Leave the gimmicks to independent baseball. Clemens, 50 years old, out of shape and out of the game for five years, is playing softball and golf in between starts for a minor league outfit. It's great that he's having fun, but major league competition and integrity are not compromised for vanity projects.
11. The last September of Chipper Jones. The Braves third baseman endured the pain of Atlanta's collapse last September and now gets one last shot at another postseason before he retires. Jones, 40, is hitting .304 (smack on his career average) and slugging .500.
12. The Night of 162, The Sequel. Check out these games scheduled for Oct. 3, the last scheduled day of the regular season (all times Eastern), and think of the possibilities of 11 hours of nonstop games that could decide postseason berths:
Braves at Pirates (12:35 p.m.)
Rangers at Athletics (3:35 p.m.)
Angels at Mariners (6:40 p.m.)
Orioles at Rays (7:10 p.m.)
Giants at Dodgers (7:15 p.m.)
Reds at Cardinals (8:15 p.m.)
13. Baseball on Oct. 4. No games are scheduled for that day. It is left open for the possibility of tiebreaker games. With first-place ties now required to be settled on the field (not by head-to-head record), with an extra wild card at stake and with so many teams in contention, there is a very good chance we are getting baseball on Oct. 4 -- followed by wild-card knockout games the next day. The good stuff is just getting started, folks.