By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
-- FOR SENTIMENTAL REASONS: The oldest players in the NL and AL -- Philadelphia's Jamie Moyer and Boston's Tim Wakefield, respectively -- are no locks to make the postseason rosters of their respective teams, despite the fact both helped win World Series titles for those teams in this decade.
Moyer, 46, is mostly a reliever now, and one whose hold on a postseason roster spot could hinge upon the relative health of teammates Myers, Mart?nez, Chan Ho Park and J.C. Romero, all of whom have been banged up. But one thing is clear: There is no room for sentimentality in Philadelphia.
"It's not about hurting feelings, or not hurting feelings," Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro told reporters. "It's about getting the best players."
Similarly, in Boston, Wakefield, 43, appears to have been aced out of a rotation spot by the resurgent Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz, and the Red Sox may not trust him to pitch in relief because of a bad back that leaves him virtually unable to walk after he pitches.
-- GAME 1 INTRIGUE: In Boston and Philadelphia, the local nines have the best problem any team could ever face -- which true ace to start in Game 1 of the postseason, and which to relegate to Game 2.
For the Red Sox, it was going to be the lefty Lester -- instead of postseason ace Josh Beckett -- until Lester took a line drive off his leg Friday night. Now it's back up in the air, pending Lester's next scheduled start Thursday.
Meantime, the Phillies haven't declared which of their ace lefties, Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee, will go in Game 1, though Lee's ability to return on three days' rest in a possible Game 4 might give him the edge.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Dodgers, whose No. 1 starter, at various points this summer, might have been Chad Billingsley or Kershaw, but which now appears to be veteran lefty Randy Wolf, by default.
-- DISAPPEARING ACTS: Every division leader seems to have at least one slumping lineup anchor they are desperate to see heat up.
In Philadelphia, it's second baseman Chase Utley (.213 BA, .666 OPS in September). In Detroit, it's Curtis Granderson (.196, .597). In Los Angeles, it's center fielder Matt Kemp (.245, .709). In New York, it's Johnny Damon (.253, .663). And in Anaheim, it's first baseman Kendry Morales (.222, .608).
-- WAYWARD SONS: This summer, Billingsley, the Dodgers' all-star right-hander, and Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees' young right-hander, looked like integral members of their respective teams' rotations. But then both tried hard to pitch their way out, with one maddening start after another -- Chamberlain by going 2-4 with a 7.71 ERA since the start of August, Billingsley by going 3-6 with a 5.42 ERA since the start of July.
Both pitchers shined in critical tuneups last week, dialing back the concern from Code Red to Code Orange, but both have one more start this week that may go a long way toward determining whether, and how often, they get the ball in the playoffs.