By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
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).
Over at http://www.coolstandings.com, the math goes like this: The eight projected playoff teams (the six division leaders plus the two wild card leaders) have between a 70.5 percent chance (the Rockies) and a 99.9 percent chance (the AL East-leading Yankees) of going to the postseason, while among the pursuers, only the Giants (at 27.4 percent) have a better than one-in-four chance.
"Time has been running out," Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillén told reporters, after they failed to gain any ground on AL Central-leading Detroit despite putting together a four-game winning streak. "I said it would be harder and harder [to make a run], the way Detroit is playing. It's not impossible, but every day will be tougher and tougher."
What does it all mean? Instead of a series of life-or-death battles between contenders down the stretch, you'll be seeing a lot of five-inning starts by big-name starting pitchers for contenders with comfortable leads, as those teams line up their rotations and rest their starters in preparation for October.
Speaking of which, if the playoffs started today (and by all appearances, they might as well), it would be the Tigers at the Yankees, the Red Sox at the Angels, the Phillies at the Dodgers and the Rockies at the Cardinals in the first round.
It's enough to make one nostalgic for the scrunched-up Labor Day standings of yore. Just last year, three of the six division leaders held leads of less than three games on Labor Day. On Labor Day 2007, five of the eight races were within four games, and in the NL West alone, just five games separated the top four teams. In both seasons, two teams who trailed on Labor Day wound up getting into the playoffs -- and one of them, the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies (one game behind the New York Mets), wound up winning the World Series.
Could there be in our midst a team like the 2008 Phillies, who trailed by 3 1/2 games on Sept. 10, or the 2007 Rockies, who won 14 of their final 15 regular season games to storm back from a seven-game deficit to win the NL West and advance all the way to the World Series?
Perhaps. We're not counting out the Rangers just yet, since they have seven games remaining against the division-leading Angels and could get top hitters Michael Young and Josh Hamilton back in the coming days. The Giants, too, have a schedule that is conducive to a stretch-drive run, with three games remaining against the wild card-leading Rockies and another 12 combined against last-place San Diego and Arizona.
But for all practical purposes, the pennant chase passed away this weekend.
Such a shame. It had so much life still to live.