Wednesday, September 1, 2010

MLB Playoff Race

Contending teams are pretty much on their own now.
You heard the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline was a crucial date for clubs to add outside help for a potential playoff run, only to be reminded that players could still be acquired via trade through August, except they'd have to first clear waivers.
But this is it. Seriously.
September is here, and that essentially means three things: Active rosters have expanded from 25 to 40, any player acquired from this point forward will not have a say in the postseason, and the game-by-game importance is at a whole new level.
Will Manny Ramirez's bat be the driving force behind the White Sox surpassing the Twins in the American League Central? Is Aroldis Chapman going to have the kind of impact out of the bullpen that could help the underdog Reds hold off a late-season run from the stumbling Cardinals? Can the surprising Padres continue to hold on? Could Bobby Cox's final season in Atlanta end with yet another postseason appearance? And will the Yankees or Rays ever separate themselves for the top spot of the toughest division in baseball?
In a little more than a month, all those questions will have answers.
"There's the saying the season is a marathon," said Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, as fine a September performer as the game has today. "You want to try to be strong at the end of the race, and kick it in during the home stretch."
Welcome to the home stretch.
Heading into the sixth and final full month of the regular season, 12 teams stood within five games of a playoff spot -- be it a lead in their respective division or the Wild Card race -- with several others teetering.
In the National League, the Braves hold a three-game lead in the East, the Reds are seven up in the Central, the Padres lead the Giants by four in the West, and the reigning league-champion Phillies are up in the Wild Card by 1 1/2 games.
Over in the AL, the Yankees sport a one-game advantage in the East, the Twins lead the Central by four games, the Rangers hold a comfortable 8 1/2-game cushion in the West, and the Rays are seven up in the Wild Card.
Based on the remaining schedule, a lot can change.
The Braves and Phillies, for example, will go at it six more times this year, while the Giants and Padres hook up for seven more games, as do the Yankees and Rays -- who were tied for a record eight straight days before New York barely jumped ahead on Tuesday night.
"We're going to meet up [with the Rays] a whole bunch of times," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "But, obviously, you'd rather have the lead."
The first three days of October -- and the last three days of the regular season, unless there's a one-game playoff for the fourth straight year -- could bring crucial ramifications, considering the Phillies finish up at Turner Field in Atlanta, the Yankees go to Fenway Park in Boston and the Padres end with a three-game series at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
San Diego's division lead had been at least five games since Aug. 16, but the Padres have dropped a season-high six straight contests and have scored just nine total runs in their past five games.
Meanwhile, the hot-on-their-heels Giants -- also 1 1/2-games back in the Wild Card picture -- added Jose Guillen and Cody Ross in August to further bolster a now-crowded outfield picture, and the Rockies and Dodgers still haven't gone away.
Is there reason for September panic in San Diego?
"I think what we've done this year is way too special to waste at this point," the Padres' losing pitcher on Tuesday, Kevin Correia, said. "And I really feel like we're going to turn it around any day now, and no one is really panicking at this point."
Perhaps the Twins are, considering they now have the big bat of Ramirez to worry about in their division.
Antics aside, the right-handed-hitting slugger could be a key addition to the White Sox, who have struggled mightily with production from their designated hitters this season. And considering Ramirez went on a flat-out tear upon being traded to the Dodgers at the 2008 non-waiver Trade Deadline -- which, like this season, was a contract year -- there's reason to believe in September if you're a South Sider.
"Manny can carry a ballclub," his new manager, Ozzie Guillen, said. "He did in the past. But that was in the past. Do we want him to do that? Of course we do. That's why we got him. But I just want him to be him. We've got more guys in the lineup that are going to help him."
The same kind of buzz for Ramirez from Chicago is felt in Cincinnati for Chapman, who last gave up a professional run on Aug. 8, reportedly hit an inhuman 105 mph on the radar gun in his most recent Minor League game and dazzled during his Major League debut on Wednesday, pitching a perfect inning and touching 103 mph.
Perhaps even more reason for the slumping Cardinals to worry?
The Redbirds were already enduring a tough stretch when they decided to shave their collective heads in hopes of shaking it up on Monday. Then, they were shut out in back-to-back games by the Astros to make it 2-7 on a road trip against three below-.500 teams.
Apparently, no grooming kit can fix this slump.
"We're picking a bad time to play some bad baseball," franchise player Albert Pujols said. "How many games do we have left? Try to win 30 games in a row -- that's it."
As the Cardinals look to bounce back, so do two of the game's elites -- Howard and Rangers ace Cliff Lee.
The Rangers have held a vice grip on first place in their division for a while, but they'd like nothing more than for Lee to get right down the stretch.
August -- when he posted a 6.37 ERA in seven starts -- was a month Lee would like to forget.
Prior to Tuesday night, Howard hadn't looked like himself since coming off the 15-day disabled list on Aug. 21, batting .111 (4-for-36) with just one RBI in nine games. Perhaps a three-run homer off Ramon Troncoso on Tuesday -- his first extra-base hit since July 27 -- will be just the thing to get him going.
The Phillies, who had had been held to two runs in eight of 12 games heading into Tuesday, certainly hope so.
"That's good to see," manager Charlie Manuel said of Howard's 24th homer of the season. "He's got to get going. We need him to get going."
September callups can also play a big role this month, and so will currently-on-the-shelf players.
The Reds are awaiting the returns of Orlando Cabrera and Jim Edmonds, among several others.
The White Sox need key late-inning relievers Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz back.
The Twins, who beefed up their bullpen recently by adding Brian Fuentes, are still holding out hope Justin Morneau will return this season (though that seems more unlikely as time passes).
The Yankees await the returns of Alex Rodriguez, Lance Berkman and Andy Pettitte.
And the Rangers, who added even more depth by acquiring Jeff Francoeur on Tuesday, will get Ian Kinsler back on Wednesday.
As for the Red Sox? They may not get any of their key players back, since Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury could all be out for the year. But injuries haven't kept them from staying afloat all season.
And it may not stop them in September, either.
"It's a ride-or-die situation toward the end of the season," said Red Sox DH David Ortiz, whose club is eight games back of first and seven behind for the Wild Card. "You have to win as many games as you can so you can be playing in October."
Will that be the fate of Cox in his last season at the helm?
The Braves have held first place in the NL East since May 31, they recently added first baseman Derrek Lee, and the players would like nothing more than to see their skipper finish his career off the right way.
"We all want Bobby to go out on top," Braves starter Tim Hudson said. "He deserves it."
September will play a major role in deciding that.

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