That's not "magic" going on in Denver, where the Rockies are making another crazy September run. There's something very real at play: The Rockies are exploiting yet another favorable schedule down the stretch.
If it seems as if the Rockies play an abundance of home games in September ever year, well, they do -- by a lot. For the fourth consecutive season, Colorado has more home games than road games from Sept. 1 to the end of the season. Given the uniqueness of Coors Field, with its huge outfield and thin air, the Rockies have one of the best home-field advantages in baseball. Give them expanded rosters, more home games and no rigorous road trips in a pennant race, and the Rockies have the pieces in place to manufacture their annual sprints to the finish.
In September and October regular-season games from 2007 through 2010, the Rockies:
• Will have played 60 percent of their games at home: 68 at Coors Field and 45 on the road.
• Are 42-20 (.677) at home and 19-16 (.543) on the road.
• Will have played 90 percent of those late-season games in Colorado, California and Arizona (102 of 113). They will have traveled outside of those three Western states for only 11 games. They are 2-5 in those games with four remaining in St. Louis in the final series of this year. (San Diego, for example, played 19 such games in the same four-year span.)
The last time the Rockies played more road games than home games down the stretch was 2006 -- and they went 14-15 beginning Sept. 1 and missed the playoffs. And next year they are scheduled to have more home games down the stretch for a fifth straight year, even if barely so (13-12). You might think the favorable September schedules come about because Major League Baseball keeps the Rockies on the road in April, when the weather can be an issue in Denver. Not so. Colorado had more home games than road games in April this year.
One reason the unbalanced schedule (more intradivisional games) appears here to stay is that clubs want as many games as possible broadcast in their local prime time. And so the Rockies will play 121 of their 162 games this year in Colorado, California and Arizona. But when they do have to play outside of those three Western states, the Rockies are a poor team: just 12-25 (.324). They have won one series out of 12 all year in the Eastern and Central time zones -- in Kansas City. So that series finale in St. Louis looms as a huge challenge for Colorado, no matter how hot they are now.
Where the Rockies play seems to matter more to them than any other team. For example, they have hit .304 at home and .228 on the road this year. So if they get to play at home 60 percent of the time down the stretch over a four-year period, maybe we shouldn't be surprised they are a great closing team.
If the Yankees want Carl Crawford this winter as a free agent, no one has the financial muscle to outbid them. But to become a Yankee would represent a switch in team cultures for the Rays outfielder, which Crawford experienced this week when he made the last out of Tuesday's game by getting thrown out at third base trying to advance on a shallow fly ball to Yankees right fielder Greg Golson.
Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said, "I couldn't believe he was running," properly pointing out that Crawford would have obtained almost no advantage by being on third base instead of second with two outs -- at the risk of ending the game. It was akin to Brett Gardner getting thrown out at third on a steal attempt with two outs the previous night. A humbled Gardner immediately fessed up to making a mistake.
Posada is right, of course. Crawford was on base for two fly balls and made the "wrong" decision each time: He failed to tag from first on a fly ball at the center-field wall by Evan Longoria, and then he did try to tag on the shallow pop to Golson.
(Crawford did steal second base after Longoria's flyout, but it took him four pitches to run. By then Mariano Rivera had two strikes on the batter, Matt Joyce, lessening the impact of the advancement.)
However, because Crawford plays for the Rays and a manager, Joe Maddon, who encourages challenging convention, Crawford wasn't "wrong" at all. That's how the Rays play. They risk making the first and third outs at third base, they don't automatically guard the lines or play no-doubles defense in the late innings with a lead, they deploy players at multiple positions and lineup slots, they run fearlessly, etc. Maddon had no problem with Crawford taking the gamble. And if the manager signed off on it, then it's not "wrong" -- just risky, which is the Rays' way.
Crawford, though, sounded taken aback by how much attention it generated (welcome to the Yankees' world) and the criticism he took, including from the Yankees clubhouse. Crawford told the St. Petersburg Times, "To end the game or not, we're just not a team -- OK, the Yankees, every little game like that, they probably go and get uptight and be mad about that kind of stuff. That's not going to happen over here."
It was the first game in Rays' history in which they made the last out on the bases trying to advance on a fly ball.
The Phillies have a strong incentive to finish not only ahead of Atlanta in the NL East, but also with the best record in the league. The top NL team this year gets the luxury of the Division Series with the extra off day, which means manager Charlie Manuel could start Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt every game on full rest even if the series went the full five games.
Manuel already has his Big Three lined up to pitch all six remaining games against Atlanta (including three in the final weekend, as needed) with full rest or even extra rest.
In fact, the Phillies can put the stretch run and a full complement of postseason games almost entirely into the hands of the Big Three without straining them. Starting Monday and through Nov. 4 -- assuming the maximum number of postseason games -- Philadelphia has Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt lined up to pitch 26 of 31 games without ever having to use anyone on short rest.
In the postseason alone, thanks to a minimum of 13 off-days, the Big Three would be fully rested to start 17 of the maximum 19 games, with number four starter Joe Blanton needed only twice.
One word of caution: Under that unlikely maximum-postseason game scenario (the most games played in one postseason by any team has been 17), and under his current rate of innings, Halladay would finish the year with 40 starts and 303 innings.