NL playoff and Triple Crown races top the September watch list
It's a bellwether day in the baseball world, the first day of September, the day when the stretch drive begins, summer begins the turn into fall, and a bunch of guys you've never heard of start showing up in box scores. Here's what to watch over the final 33 days of the regular season:
The National League pennant race is easier to grasp if you look at it as seven contending teams for four slots, with at least one team from each division guaranteed a spot. The seven teams, from the Braves and Reds atop the league at 77-55 down to the road-challenged Rockies at 69-62, are separated by just 7-1/2 games in total, so it can be unclear on any given day whether a team's best path to the postseason is through a division title or the wild card.
Things can change in a hurry around here: The Cardinals had taken control of the NL Central after a sweep of the Reds, but now find themselves seven games out and struggling to get runners to third base, much less all the way home. The Padres had the best record in the league just a few days ago, but a six-game losing streak in the wake of
Right now, the best teams in the league are the pitching-rich Braves, the young-talent-laden Reds, and the rebuilt-on-the-fly Giants. The reeling Cards are the worst of the contenders, with the Phillies, Padres and Rockies filling out the group. With so many games among these teams remaining, it's not easy to predict how the postseason field will shake out. Lessons from recent Septembers tell us that the standings on Sept. 1 are written in sand, not stone, so look for change. In order, I'll take the Reds, Giants and Phillies to reach the playoffs, with the Braves edging the Padres for the last spot.
As close as it is right now, Votto has a slight edge down the stretch. As a left-handed batter he hits with the platoon advantage more often than Pujols does, giving him a better shot to sustain a high average. Despite the monster season he's having, teams aren't avoiding him: he has drawn just four intentional walks all year long, to Pujols' 32. That helps his RBI count, as does having better OBP players in front of him. (The Cardinals' slide, and Pujols' slowing RBI tally, can both be traced to wretched performances by the top of the Cards' lineup over the past three weeks.) Home runs will be the challenge for both players, not least because of the presence of
One other fly in the ointment is the Braves'
The biggest story as we open the month is the White Sox' acquisition of
They stand four games out as of Wednesday morning, their comeback win in Cleveland having been matched by the Twins' at home against the Tigers on Tuesday night. Ramirez should be worth one of those: Adding his bat to the lineup projects to about an 11-run improvement over having Kotsay get those at-bats. If you can make that kind of upgrade with 30 games left, you do it. The AL Central has gone down to the wire two years running, and the Twins came back from a deficit nearly twice a large a year ago, so there's no counting out the Sox.
There's a focus on the off-field ramifications of this transaction, with an undercurrent of "how will these explosive personalities" -- meaning Ramirez and manager
The two best teams in baseball are separated by a single game with 30 to play, which should be a recipe for a race like 1951 or 1978 or 1993. Instead, we'll get six-man rotations and September call-ups and a lack of tension.
With the injury-riddled Red Sox unable to hang in, the Yankees and the Rays are in excellent shape for the postseason, and are playing September merely for seeding. Extensive evidence, much of it from past AL East races, shows us that in these situations, managers play September not for September, but for October, wanting to win the division but unwilling to go all out to do so, preferring to ensure that their best 25 guys are healthy and prepared to take the field in the Division Series. It's hard to argue with the approach -- home-field advantage in short series is a small thing to fight over, and wild cards have had a lot of success in October -- but it's hard to not feel a little cheated. MLB, led by
If you're looking for a key factor, consider that the Rays' closing kick is sponsored by Crumbs, the great cupcake chain in New York. They finish against the three worst teams in the league, the Mariners, Orioles and Royals.
America was introduced to Reds rookie
• The Rays could get a similar bounce by promoting lefty
• The Royals' future looks brighter in part due to
• The Angels' season is over, so it behooves them to get a look at their prospects. The one closest to the majors is powerful first baseman