Yankees, Cubs top September MLB storylines to follow - Sports Illustrated

September Storylines to Follow as MLB's Stretch Run Begins

As the last gasp before the postseason gets underway, we canvas the league for the top storylines remaining across baseball.
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If players are defined by what they do in October, their fates are often sealed in September. This is the month that makes postseason success possible. Divisions will be won, wild-card berths will be secured and MVP races will be decided. Here are the top storylines to follow as summer turns to fall.

1. The Last Division Race Standing

The NL Central was expected to be a three-team race all season, as the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers expected to be in contention for the division title. St. Louis has been surging in the second half, when Paul Goldschmidt got hot and Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson emerged as a strong one-two rotation duo. Entering play Monday, the Cardinals (76-60) are three games ahead of Chicago in the division after winning eight of their last 10.

The Cubs (73-63), who hold a 2 1/2-game lead for the second wild-card, have been wildly inconsistent for much of the season. Their last three series (nine games) are the perfect example: They got swept at home by the Nationals, then swept the Mets at Citi Field before returning home to Wrigley Field and dropping two of three against Milwaukee. Offensive consistency has been a problem, as has an overworked bullpen with a less-effective Craig Kimbrel as the closer. Chicago is ultra talented, with a lineup anchored by a handful of all-stars. The Cubs are more than capable of rivaling the Cardinals for the division title, making the NL Central a worthy narrative to follow the rest of the way.

It's worth noting the Brewers (70-66) are six games behind St. Louis and are more in play for the second wild-card than the division, though when Christian Yelich is raking, anything is possible.

• Cleveland (79-58) could still make a run at winning the AL Central. But, after injuries to a few key players, the Indians now trail the Twins (84-52) by 5 1/2 games and could have to settle for a wild-card berth (if they can stave off the Rays and A’s, that is).

• Likewise, Washington (77-58, 5 1/2 games back in the NL East) has an outside shot at catching the Braves (84-54). The Nationals are expected to be a dangerous team come October—probably as the first wild-card—and their shot at gaining on the Braves comes in the first two weeks of September. They have a four-game series in Atlanta this weekend, with a three-game series in D.C. set for the following weekend. If the Nationals can do to the Braves at SunTrust Park what they recently did to the Cubs at Wrigley, things could get interesting in the East.

2. Let’s Get Wild

The addition of the second wild-card prior to the 2012 campaign has made the final days of the regular season that much more interesting, and this year could be the first one where the second-wild card in both leagues are decided in Game 162.

Right now, the AL wild-card race has three teams separated by no more than a game from one another—the Rays (80-58), Indians (79-58) and Athletics (78-58). Then, five games behind Cleveland is Boston, the reigning World Series champion, with an underperforming-yet-talented roster still capable of getting hot and making a final run at a title defense.

There’s a bit more separation in the NL between the wild-card leaders and the team just behind them. The Nationals are ahead of the Cubs by 4 1/2 games for the first wild-card, while Chicago holds a 2.5-game lead over the Phillies (70-65) for the second slot. However, four teams are within four games of the second wild-card: Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Arizona (70-67) and the Mets (69-67).

3. Dingers, Dingers Everywhere

The single-season home run record for a team stood for…less than one year. The 2018 Yankees set the mark of 267 homers and the Twins already shot past that mark with a month left to go. Minnesota will likely have company in the record book, too.

This year’s Yankees are almost certainly going to beat last year’s record. New York is up to 256 homers on the year after hitting two on Sunday. The Yankees had hit a mere 222 home runs at this time in 2018.

Currently, two other teams have hit at least 230 homers this season: the Astros (231) and Dodgers (238). Crazier things have happened in the year of the long ball.

4. Best of the Big 3

The Yankees, Astros and Dodgers are all fighting for the best record in the majors, hoping to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason. But which of baseball’s Big 3 has the best shot at outlasting the others after 162 games?

Here’s how they stand after Sunday: Thanks to a walk-off homer from Mike Ford—the husky, undrafted former Ivy Leaguer—the Yankees became the first team to reach 90 wins. Houston picked up its 89th victory with an all-time pitching performance from Justin Verlander. The Dodgers won their 89th game when Joc Pederson blasted his 28th home run in the 11th inning—one of four solo shots for Los Angeles on the day.

All three teams have favorable remaining strengths of schedule, per Fangraphs, which projects the Astros and Yankees to each finish with 104 wins, just ahead of the Dodgers (103).

5. Belli and Yeli and Yeli and Belli

Mike Trout is going to win the AL MVP award, so we won’t even worry about that. The NL race, however, is fascinating. Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger have long been the two front runners for MVP, with MLB even featuring them in a commercial competing in a faux home run derby skills competition that they call “MVP.” Belli and Yeli remain the two favorites entering the first week of September, but a trio from the NL East are also in the conversation.

The Braves have been the best non-Big 3 team this season, with 2018 Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. and four-time All-Star Freddie Freeman leading the way. Acuna ranks sixth in the NL with a 4.9 WAR and is slashing .286/.367/.519 with 36 homers and 31 stolen bases. Freeman is hitting .301 with a .973 OPS, 38 home runs, 107 runs and 114 RBI.

Then there’s Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, who has stabilized Washington’s lineup following Bryce Harper’s departure to Philadelphia before the year started. Rendon’s 5.8 WAR ranks third in the NL, behind Bellinger (8.1) and Yelich (6.1), and is hitting .337 with a 1.056 OPS, 32 homers and 111 RBI.

Notes and Nuggets:

• Following his no-hit, 14-strikeout performance Sunday, Verlander is 37 strikeouts away from 3,000 for his career. He’ll need to average 7.4 strikeouts per game if he starts five more starts, 9.25 if he has four more, to reach the milestone. In 29 starts this year, Verlander is averaging 8.86 strikeouts per game.

• Mets first baseman Pete Alonso hit his 43rd home run on Sunday, his 135th game, and is now nine behind Aaron Judge for the most for a rookie in MLB history. Judge had 39 homers in his first 135 games in 2017.

• The Yankees and Astros are both projected to win 104 games, per Fangraphs. Two teams, the Tigers (51) and Orioles (56) are projected to win fewer games than New York and Houston are to lose (58). The Marlins are on track to win exactly 58, with the Royals (59) also in jeopardy of achieving the feat.