Teams Have Struggled to Clinch Playoff Spots in Major League Baseball
Monday, September 28, 2009
The way this September was shaping up -- with all those blowout non-pennant-races -- it was supposed to have been all cakewalks and coronations by now: six division champs-to-be and a couple of clear-of-the-field wild cards waltzing into October with little care in the world beyond setting up their playoff rotations and resting their veterans.
Let's just say it hasn't worked out that way.
Instead of cakewalks, we have seen protracted team slumps (the Tigers, 8-11 since Sept. 6) that turned a non-race into a real race (the AL Central). We have seen teams (the Cardinals, 6-9 since Sept. 9) backing into the clinching of their division title. In general, we have seen a whole lot of champagne staying iced for a real long time.
"I know some say it's in the bag," Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel told reporters following a walk-off loss in Milwaukee on Saturday night. But "we ain't got a thing yet."
Instead of coronations, we have seen high-profile closer implosions (the Phillies' Brad Lidge) that have thrown the back ends of bullpens into turmoil. We have seen minor injuries (the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the Yankees' Andy Pettitte, Detroit's Jarrod Washburn, Boston's Jon Lester) that have had their teams temporarily holding their breath.
Despite it all, only the Tigers, among the six division leaders, find themselves in any real trouble -- with a two-game lead over the surging Twins (11-2 since Sept. 12), who visit Detroit on Monday for the first of four crucial games. The only other real race is the NL wild card, in which the Rockies lead by 2 1/2 games over the Braves.
Still, in the absence of playoff races, the intrigue over the season's final week revolves largely around roster decisions, rotation alignments and avoiding an ugly finish. Here are a few reasons why the next seven days still matter:
-- WHEN GOOD CLOSERS GO BAD: With Lidge (11 blown saves) having crashed and burned, the Phillies are essentially operating closer-less. Tyler Walker was the victim of Saturday night's walk-off in Milwaukee, and Ryan Madson escaped a jam to earn the save on Sunday. Philadelphia also might try Brett Myers (if healthy), J.A. Happ, Pedro Mart?nez -- or some combination thereof.
But the Phillies aren't the only ones worrying about the ninth inning. In St. Louis, all-star closer Ryan Franklin has three blown saves and a 7.56 ERA this month. Might veteran John Smoltz, an August pickup, wind up pitching the ninth inning in October? Stay tuned.
In Anaheim, the Angels were concerned enough about slumping veteran closer Brian Fuentes that they had him sharing the job with Kevin Jepsen -- until Jepsen came down with a "tired" arm.