September Stretch Run: MLB Divisional Races Continue to Compel
EAST—Well, it’s presumed to be the Red Sox all the way. They’ve been comfortably atop the division all year, and currently lead by 5 games. Except the Yankees just swept them three straight. The Yanks look incredibly strong up and down their lineup, and we’re not necessarily talking about A-Rod, Jeter, Posada and Matsui. They’re getting big contris also from Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, a revitalized Jason Giambi and even Johnnny Damon. The New York starting pitching has been suspect all year, but suddenly they seem to have a strong triumvirate in Chien-Ming Wang (pictured, left), Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, each of whom recently turned in gemlike performances. As for the Sox, well, Manny Ramirez is nursing an injury, and frankly, they just don’t look as strong up and down their lineup. They have Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Dice-K and Tim Wakefield hurling well enough, so maybe they’ll hang on. But beware the Yankee storm. Whoever doesn't win the division is a good bet for the Wild Card.
CENTRAL—The Cleveland Indians are starting to assert themselves. Led by catcher Victor Martinez (left) and an overachieving pitching staff, they lead Detroit by 4.5 games at the moment, and have won 8 of their last 10, while the Tigers keep treading the waters of mediocrity, recently dropping 2 of 3 to the lowly Royals. The Twins have gamely tried to stay afloat here, but now find themselves 9 games back. They have an outside shot at the Wild Card, but otherwise will have to be content to play the role of spoiler. Then there’s the White Sox. Less than two years removed from a world championship, Chicago is mired in last place, 20 games under .500. Since 2005, the Sox have watched their ace pitching staff deteriorate, they traded away important cogs like Aaron Rowand and Tadahito Iguchi, and they’ve suffered injuries to guys like Joe Crede. Now, except for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they’ve got the worst record in the American League. Sad.
WEST—This one might be the closest to a gimme we’ve got in all of baseball. The Angels’ lead over the Seattle Mariners is 5.5 games. It’s not a shoo-in yet, but the Halos simply are a tough bunch. They’re over .500 on the road, and they are killers at home (the best mark in all of baseball at 44-20). Vlad Guerrero (pictured, left, hat askew as always) is a run-producing machine (check out his career stats here). Plus vet Garret Anderson is irrepressible, Gary Matthews Jr. has come into his own, and Chone Figgins, who was hitting under .200 at one point earlier in the season, is now at .335. The pitching looks good enough, too. As for the M’s, they’ve been tough customers all year, getting surprising contris up and down the lineup from no-names and reclamation projects like Jose Guillen and Richie Sexson. Alas, they’re currently on a 6-game losing streak, and the pitching staff, also dotted with older wannabes like Jarrod Washburn and Jeff Weaver, just doesn’t look sound enough. But the Mariners are only one game off the Wild Card pace, so the postseason is still there for the taking. Just one other thought about the West: The Texas Rangers’ Sammy Sosa will be 39 on November 12. It’s probably fair to say his body must be steroid-free at this point. Sammy’s got 18 homers and 78 RBIs. Solid numbers, and it’s a surprise no pennant contender has tried to pick him up for insurance down the stretch.
EAST—The presumed-favorite Mets are still in the lead here, but they just dropped a three-game series to the surging Phillies. The Mets’ lead is only two games now, and they need to beware. The Phillies’ lineup at the top is unreal: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard (left), and Rowand are a formidable bunch. Starting pitching is an issue for the Phils, though. Vet Jamie Moyer wins sometimes, but his ERA is 5.08. And after the excellent youngster Cole Hamels, there are other young arms that remain untested in the pressure of a pennant race. Recently acquired Kyle Lohse might help. The Mets would seem to have the better pitching, but Tom Glavine and El Duque, both chronological wonders, are nonetheless not in their primes. Also, ace John Maine has been having a lackluster second half. Oliver Perez offers hope here. Also, keep an eye on the Mets’ run production. Despite bats like Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and Moises Alou, they seem to be getting carried lately solely by Jose Reyes and David Wright. The return of Paul Lo Duca from injury should help. Then, sitting back 4.5 games (in their division and also the Wild Card race), are the mysterious Atlanta Braves, a weird mix of younger little-knowns and vets like Chipper Jones, Edgar Renteria and Andruw Jones. The Braves have nine players with double-digit home run totals, including Jeff Francoeur, who is having a breakout season, and the recently acquired slugging first baseman Mark Texeira. Pitching is led by a rejuvenated Tim Hudson and the amazing John Smoltz. Question marks abound, but the Braves, without doubt the finest baseball organization of the past 20 years, can never be discounted. Still, the Wild Card might be their best bet. [Division note: The Washington Nationals are heading south pretty fast these days, after playing gamely and having a few positive streaks. But that doesn’t mean Manny Acta shouldn’t receive serious consideration for Manager of the Year. This team has simply awful pitching. Not a single guy in the rotation has more than 6 wins, and the Nats have trotted out 13 different starters this season. With string and baling wire, Acta has held this team together, without ever losing faith.]
CENTRAL—A real dogfight here. The Brewers—with a solid mix of vets and younger stars like Prince Fielder (left) and rookie Ryan Braun—looked solid, until injury to Ben Sheets and drooping pitching performances elsewhere saddled the team with almost fatal losing streaks. They remain 2.5 games off the pace of the Cubs, whose pitching looks stronger if not exactly spectacular. The Cubs just got Alfonso Soriano back from injury, yet he’s still limping a bit, and manager Lou Piniella insists on batting him leadoff, which seems to be a mistake, especially since he’s leading the team in homers. And never bet on the Cubs; they always find ways to fail. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are but a half game behind the Brewers and only three games off the Cubs’ pace. The Cards have time-tested vets in their lineup—Pujols, Eckstein, Edmonds, Rolen—and it’s probably best to keep in mind that they’re the 2006 world champs. Their pitching looks no better than everyone else, however. Fact is, even the Wild Card looks remote for the Brewers and Cards—there are five teams ahead of them—so it’s division title or bust. Things are so tight in the Central, that even the Cincinnati Reds, at 62-72, are only 7 games out of first. This’ll go down to the wire.
WEST—Another barn-burner division. The surprising Dbacks currently lead the Padres by a game. The Dodgers are only 4 games back; the Rockies only 6 off the pace. A cold analysis says the Padres have the pitching, with starters Peavy, Maddux and Chris Young, and ace reliever Trevor Hoffman. But Arizona has 2006 Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb, and is getting a dominant performance out of stopper Jose Valverde (left). And the team is scrapping offensively in one of those magical ways that could smack of inevitability. The Dodgers are a schizoid bunch. They have veteran talent—Pierre, Furcal, Kent, Nomar (when healthy)—and youngsters like Ethier, Loney and Kemp are helping keep the ship afloat. Brad Penny is having a Cy Young-type year, but after that it’s .500 pitching with an occasional bright spot from guys like Chad Billingsley. The recent addition of David Wells may bring more PR value than practical results. Everyone here, including the Rockies, is thick into the Wild Card race, and strangely enough, a division once thought to be weak throughout, now has the two top league leaders in winning percentage. If the Mets don’t falter, West teams will be fighting the Phillies for the play-in slot.
Now you’re up to speed. Enjoy the last month!