Six Races Hath September
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
All these floundering division leaders, all these out-of-nowhere surges, all these left-for-deads transforming themselves into somehow-still-alives, and -- let's be honest here -- all this rampant mediocrity across the baseball landscape. . . . Don't knock it; embrace it. Labor Day has come and gone, there are less than four weeks left in the regular season, and we have on our hands what could be one of the great stretch drives in history.
Entering play yesterday, baseball's division leaders led by a combined 23 1/2 games, with no team holding a lead of more than 6 1/2 games. Theoretically, at least, every division race is still in play.
How rare is this? Consider: At the end of play on Labor Day last year, the combined lead of the six division winners was 43 1/2 games; you have to go back to 1997 to find another instance in which the six division races, combined, were closer at the end of play on Labor Day.
In the National League, no fewer than nine of the 16 teams were either leading their division or were within five games of the lead entering yesterday, including four of the five teams in the NL West.
But even in the AL, where the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels were leading by a combined 18 games, there is no one celebrating yet. A year ago, the Detroit Tigers held a five-game lead at the end of Labor Day, but wound up losing the division by a game to the Minnesota Twins.
And that's not to mention the wild card -- the maligned-at-the-time Bud Selig invention that arose as a response to the 1993 San Francisco Giants' winning 103 games but missing the playoffs. Most years, the wild card is the avenue of last hope in September for many second- and third-place teams -- such as the aforementioned 2006 Tigers, who stumbled down the stretch, lost their division lead, but rode the wild card all the way to the World Series.
But this year, with so many teams in the division-title races, it is almost an afterthought.
"You play as hard as you can and try to win the division," said veteran New York Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon. "And if you get to the end and you fall short, you just hope it's good enough to win the wild card. That's how you have to look at it."
In the AL, it has taken at least 95 wins to earn the wild card in each of the last six seasons. But this year, in a reflection of the parity across the game, the Yankees, who lead the AL wild-card race, are on pace for only 90 wins. Even in the wake of their sweep of the East-leading Red Sox last week, which pulled them (briefly) to within five games of the lead, they were keeping one eye on the wild-card race.
"You're going to be reminded of what other [teams] are doing . . . but when you simplify it, it all comes down to what you do," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. "You're going to wind up getting what you're due."
Still, you won't hear Torre say the Yankees are content to let the Red Sox take the division title and accept the wild card themselves. Torre said something to that effect late in the 1997 season when the Baltimore Orioles were running away with the division, and he still bristles at the memory of the airing-out he received from owner George Steinbrenner.
Meantime, in the National League, where the division leaders led by a combined 5 1/2 games entering Monday (including a tie in the West between San Diego and Arizona), mediocrity reigns supreme -- to the benefit of everyone.
Entering yesterday, the team with the best record in the league -- the New York Mets (76-60, .559) -- was on pace for only 91 wins. Should the Mets stumble even a little, we could see an entire league fail to produce a single 90-game winner -- something that has never happened in the division-play era.
The NL Central is a particularly fascinating case study in mediocrity. In August, the St. Louis Cardinals had what was by all measures a very mediocre month, going 15-13. Yet they gained four games on the division lead -- because the Milwaukee Brewers, who led at the start of the month, went 9-18. At one point last week, the Cincinnati Reds were closer to first place than the Yankees.
The process of eliminating pretenders has begun in earnest (goodbye, Atlanta Braves!), but at the top, there are no sure things this month, no teams that feel safe in their lead. In recent days, the Mets endured a five-game losing streak that reduced their lead, temporarily, from seven games to two. The Red Sox lost four straight. Both teams, however, rebounded quickly.
The Mariners, who led the AL wild-card race as recently as last week, entered yesterday having lost nine straight -- which might spell playoff-race death in most seasons. But this year, not so. The Mariners entered play yesterday two games back of the Yankees in the wild-card race -- and they happened to open a three-game series at Yankee Stadium. By the end, they could be holding the wild-card lead again.
If there is anyone who deserves to feel the slightest bit safe, it's the Los Angeles Angels. They have been alone atop the AL West since May 9, have held at least a share of the lead since April 25 and have seen their chief competition, the Mariners, implode in the wake of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Angels last week. The Angels' lead entering yesterday was 6 1/2 games, the biggest it has been since June 25.
Still, you won't hear Garret Anderson saying the race is over. In 1995, Anderson was a rookie on the Angels team that had an 11-game lead on Aug. 9, and a 6 1/2 -game lead on Labor Day, but coughed up the lead and lost to the Mariners in a one-game playoff.
"I've seen too many crazy things happen" to feel safe, Anderson told reporters last week. "It's not over by any means. There's too much baseball left."
The Angels, who expected outfielder Juan Rivera and third baseman Chone Figgins back this week, are one of many teams getting reinforcements off the disabled list -- a list that also includes the Mets (right-hander Pedro Martinez), Tigers (lefty Kenny Rogers), Cardinals (lefty Mark Mulder) and Yankees (first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz).
"This is the first time all year," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia told reporters, alluding to the logjam that might force hot hitters such as Kendry Morales and Reggie Willits to the bench, "where we are starting to have some decisions we haven't been faced with."
Like the Angels, the Mets have led their division almost the entire season -- having been in first place every day since May 16. But there were few who witnessed the Phillies' four-game sweep of the Mets last week who would quibble with Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins's preseason prediction -- widely pilloried in the New York media -- that the Phillies are "the team to beat."
"This team is ready to win," Phillies closer Brett Myers said. "We've been through a lot, in terms of injuries, and we managed to hold it together. Now, we just have to play the way we think we should be playing, and we can do it."
And so, it turns out Rollins was right all along, but only by default. This season, in which almost no team with a pulse is out of the race, every team is the team to beat.