Baseball Pennant Races a Non-Starter This Season
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Baseball's playoff race died suddenly this weekend of natural causes. It was five months old. Survivors include the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers.
After a thrilling, vibrant summer, marked by multiple lead changes atop several divisions, a healthy number of wild-card contenders and the promise of a captivating stretch drive, the race began to sputter in recent weeks, as five of the six division leaders padded their leads, and would-be contenders, one by one, began the slow collapse into 2010 mode.
Still, the end came with sudden and violent force.
On Sunday, as the National League wild-card-leading Colorado Rockies were waltzing to a blowout victory over Arizona, their three closest pursuers -- the San Francisco Giants, Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves -- each suffered gruesome losses in their opponents' final at-bats. The most competitive race left in baseball, the NL wild card, suddenly is the Rockies' to lose, as they maintained a two-game lead over the Giants after Monday's games.
In the American League, only one team appeared positioned to extend the life of what once was a thriving pennant chase. But that team, the Texas Rangers, suffered an ignoble fate -- losing two of three in Baltimore to the woebegone Orioles -- and are now 5 1/2 games behind the Angels in the AL West and 2 1/2 games games behind the Boston Red Sox for the wild card after Monday's rainout.
"Right here at the end of the season, you start looking at all the games you could've won," Rangers outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "If any team ahead of us loses, we have to win."
Labor Day is traditionally the unofficial start of baseball's stretch drive, when contending teams play with one eye on the ball and another on the out-of-town scoreboard.
But this year, there is a notable lack of buzz -- owing to an equally notable lack of contenders -- to the season's final month. Entering Monday's play, baseball's six divisions appeared all but locked up, with an average of nearly seven games separating first and second places, and only the NL West -- where the Dodgers lead the Rockies by 3 1/2 -- closer than five games.
Not since baseball switched to a six-division format in 1994 had Labor Day arrived without a single division race contested within three games.
The wild cards provide only a tad more drama, with the Red Sox up by three in the AL and the Rockies by two in the NL -- and with only one pursuer in each league (Texas in the AL, San Francisco in the NL) closer than five games.
In the past week alone, we have all but bade farewell to the Twins, who went from 4 1/2 games back to seven games back in the AL Central; the Braves (from three back to seven back in the NL wild card); and the Rays (from five back to seven back in the AL wild card).
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