VICTORY HAS NOT BEEN CLOSER AT HAND IN TORONTO FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES, AND THE ONLY SOUND LOUDER THAN THE BUZZ IN ROGERS CENTRE IS THE COLLECTIVE THUNDER OF THE GAME'S MOST MENACING LINEUP. WELCOME BACK TO SEPTEMBER, TORONTO (AND QUEENS, AND HOUSTON AND CHICAGO....)
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 2015 issue
The place the expanded postseason forgot is a hothouse of excitement. In Toronto, where the last playoff game was played before the existence of the DVD, provincial homeboy Justin Bieber and baseball wild cards, September is meaningful for the first time since 1993. With their team locked in an American League East battle with the Yankees, a new generation of Blue Jays fans is discovering that nothing pleasures and pains the sports psyche like the twists of a September baseball race.
Until Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos went on a four-day shopping binge at the end of July, in which he traded 11 prospects and a starting shortstop (José Reyes) for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, outfielder Ben Revere and pitchers David Price, LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe, Toronto was a 50--50 team averaging 28,700 fans at Rogers Centre. After the extreme makeover the Blue Jays ripped off the best 33-game run in franchise history (26--7), which included suddenly delirious home crowds that averaged more than 42,000.
It took Price just one home start in Rogers Centre to declare, "That was the best atmosphere I've ever been in." It was high praise from someone who has pitched in a wild-card tiebreaker game in Texas, a Division Series game in Boston, a championship-series Game 7 in St. Petersburg and a World Series game in Philadelphia.
The Blue Jays are cribbing from the novella of the 2014 Royals, a team that also was 50--50 while sitting on the longest playoff drought in baseball before tapping into the energy of a late-season run to storm all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. The AL East title is likely to come down to the seven games Toronto plays against New York, starting Thursday in the Bronx. If an intangible edge exists, it would fall to the Blue Jays on the merit of momentum.
"The Blue Jays will win the division because they're the better, hotter team right now," says one AL manager. "It's a different team. Those guys in Toronto are hungry and riding high. Guys like [José] Bautista and [Edwin] Encarnacion weren't happy with some of the low-key players they've had in the past. Now they've brought in a lot of high-energy guys, and it's bringing out the best in them. They're playing like they feel they're unstoppable."
The 34-year-old Bautista, with 279 career home runs, and the 32-year-old Encarnacion, with 259, rank one-two among active players for most dingers without ever playing in the postseason. Bautista, Encarnacion and third baseman Josh Donaldson have combined for 99 home runs on what is, by a long shot, the best offense in baseball. The Jays could become only the 14th team with three players to hit at least 35 home runs. (One caveat: None of the previous 13, including the last to do so, the 2006 White Sox, ever won a postseason series.)
The power of the Yankees, meanwhile, has waned. New York built a five-game lead (six over the Jays) entering August largely because Mark Teixeira, 35, and Alex Rodriguez, 40, unexpectedly provided 52 home runs and 134 RBIs. But then the old sluggers either broke down (Teixeira will miss much of September with a deep bone bruise on his shin) or wore down. At week's end they had hit just .173 with seven homers since Aug. 1.
Rodriguez has played 115 calendar months in his career in which he has had at least 10 at bats. His .153 average in August, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was the worst of those 115 months.
"I wore down," Rodriguez admitted as September began. "[People] said before the season if I had as many at bats as I have already it would be a miracle. I mean, I'm on a pace for 600 plate appearances. It's been a long, long time since I've done that. [Not since 2007, in fact.] My body's not used to it. But right now I feel good. I feel like the cooler weather in September will be good for me."
(The Yankees, having led by as many as seven games in July, are treading into their own unfamiliar territory. The franchise has never has blown a lead larger than the six-game margin it held in June 1933.)
The AL East race, with its seven mano-a-mano matchups still to come, is the highlight of baseball's closing chapter of the regular season. It is just one of several tantalizing September story lines.
THE LOOMING NATIONALS DISASTER
The most heavily favored team to win its division threatens to become the biggest bust. After holding a 4½-game lead on July 5, Washington fell into a 25--29 malaise characterized by poor defense, poor situational hitting and poor pitching, compounded by the curious bullpen usage of manager Matt Williams.
In 2012 the Nationals won 98 games with an entire rotation, its closer and five of their eight everyday players 28 or younger. The future looked so bright that the playoff-bound Nats even shut down healthy, postoperative ace Stephen Strasburg as a preventative measure and as an investment in future postseason runs. But Washington still hasn't won a playoff series, and the direction of the team may be altered depending on what happens this month. Washington has seven potential free agents, including pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, shortstop Ian Desmond and centerfielder Denard Span, and a manager who is on the hot seat.
"It's to the point where you wonder if their window has closed," says a rival GM. "The Padres and Rays actually bailed them out with the [off-season] three-way trade. They got [pitcher] Joe Ross and [shortstop] Trea Turner. I still don't get that one from San Diego's and Tampa's perspective. Without those two players, Washington would really be in trouble."
The Nationals do have a favorable schedule to make a run. Of their final 30 games, 24 are against losing teams and six are against the team they are chasing, the Mets.
Bryce Is Right
Can you win MVP for an also-ran team in an era when one-third of the teams make the playoffs? It hasn't happened yet in the small sample of baseball's three-year-old second wild-card era. And going further back, each of the past 16 MVPs has come from a playoff team. If voters continue to lean toward choosing players who help their teams reach the postseason, pitcher Zack Greinke (Dodgers), centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (Pirates) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (Cubs) are the leading NL candidates, along with catcher Buster Posey, if his Giants rally for a playoff spot.
Bryce Harper's season, though, may be too extraordinary to hold Washington's troubles against him. He is in position to win the "percentage triple crown" (he leads in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage).
A strong finishing kick would cement the award for Harper, 22, who would be younger than every MVP at the end of their award-winning season except Vida Blue (1971), Johnny Bench ('70) and Stan Musial ('43). Harper already has combined power and patience in historic proportions for such a young hitter. On Sept. 1, Harper became the youngest in more than half a century to hit 30 homers while drawing 100 walks. Only four other hitters also reached those thresholds in their age-22 or younger season: Eddie Mathews ('54), Ted Williams ('39 and '41), Mel Ott ('29) and Jimmie Foxx ('29)—all Hall of Famers.
PUSHING THE LIMIT
Scott Boras, the agent for Mets ace Matt Harvey, created a controversy last week by saying that Harvey's surgeon, James Andrews, advised against Harvey's pitching more than 180 innings in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. Through Sunday the 26-year-old righthander had thrown 1661/3 innings, which under his agent's plan would make him unavailable for the postseason. Boras told the MLB Network that if Harvey exceeds 180, the Mets "are obviously putting the player in peril."
Boras cited four pitchers who threw 200 innings for the first time in the season after having Tommy John surgery and faced further injury, but none are a perfect comparison for the 6'4", 215-pound Harvey, who had more than 19 months between major league appearances, an exceptionally long rehab. Pitching coach Dan Warthen told SI two months ago that the Mets scheduled Harvey to throw "in the 190 to 195" inning range during the regular season. Only in August did Boras question the team about Harvey's innings.
An uncomfortable Harvey dodged questions last Saturday, only to respond on Sunday in the face of heavy criticism from fans and media by writing for The Players' Tribune, "There has never been a doubt in my mind: I will pitch in the playoffs."
The Gift-Wrapped MVP?
It ranked as one of the most baffling trades of the off-season and only looks more curious today: On Nov. 28, 2014, Oakland general manager Billy Beane traded one of the best players in baseball, who had four more years under team control, including this season at the bargain rate of $4.3 million. The idea of trading Josh Donaldson to Toronto was such a bad one that Beane himself repeatedly told a persistent Alex Anthopoulos that Donaldson was not available. As ranked by wins above replacement (WAR) among batters, only Mike Trout was better than Donaldson, then 28, over the previous two seasons.
But after weeks of calls from Anthopoulos, including one in which the Toronto GM added major league third baseman Brett Lawrie to a package of prospects, Beane reversed himself. The Oakland GM explained in a conference call on the night of the trade that he had to make a move that "wasn't timid and got us into a position to get better every day rather than maybe starting to deteriorate."
The Athletics are on pace to deteriorate by 18 wins this year. Donaldson has continued the upward trajectory of his career. He leads the AL in WAR, runs, total bases, extra-base hits and runs batted in. He could join Alex Rodriguez (2005 and '07) and Al Rosen (1953) as the only third basemen to hit 40 home runs while leading the league in runs. Rodriguez and Rosen won the MVP award in those years. Donaldson has gained an edge for this year's AL award on Trout, who could still win it again with a big finish.
Should Donaldson win the award, Beane would become the first general manager in 43 years to trade a hitter who would go on to win the MVP the following season. The last to do so was Dodgers GM Al Campanis, who in 1971 traded first baseman Dick Allen to the White Sox to acquire pitcher Tommy John.
THE FIRST TRUE FINISH LINE
ALL 15 GAMES ON THE FINAL DAY OF THE SEASON (RIGHT), OCT. 4, BEGIN AT 3 P.M. EASTERN TIME. No longer will there be games that could be rendered moot by the outcome of earlier games. For instance, the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, Rangers, Twins and Angels—all jostling for one of the four AL playoff spots to join runaway Central-leading Kansas City—will be involved in five simultaneous games in three time zones. That change by Major League Baseball hopes to create more of the best part of pennant-race baseball: organized chaos.
Rockies at Giants
Angels at Rangers
Marlins at Phillies
Reds at Pirates
Yankees at Orioles
Cardinals at Braves
Athletics at Mariners
Padres at Dodgers
Astros at D-Backs
Royals at Twins
Tigers at White Sox
Red Sox at Indians
Nationals at Mets
Blue Jays at Rays
Cubs at Brewers
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