By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 11:51 PM
For five months, baseball is primarily about the favorite teams in your region of the country and about individual players whose feats draw our attention no matter where they play. The general shape of pennant races hundreds, or thousands, of miles from us catches our attention but doesn't rivet us.
We focus on the arrival of a Stephen Strasburg, the homer title chances of an Adam Dunn or the reasons that a new manager like Buck Showalter can turn the Orioles, in an instant, from a team headed for the worst record in baseball to a possible .500 outfit.
Only the biggest national events grab our attention. Will Joey Votto of the first-place Reds or the Cards' Albert Pujols get the first NL Triple Crown since 1937? Was Armando Galarraga robbed of a perfect game? Or did he pitch an imperfect game that will be remembered longer than any perfect game except Don Larsen's?
Then Labor Day arrives and everything changes. That's when the first round of the sport's playoffs actually start. Except baseball has a different name for it: They're called the pennant races - it's not the Long Season, but the 60-day sprint to a title.
Usually, since the wild card arrived 16 years ago, we've had to sift among about 15 teams - half the sport - all of which were within five games of the postseason spot. Our job isn't so much to "pick the winners" as it is to define the lines of battle so we can follow the war. So, let's have at it.
The best two teams in the sport, by records and all stat methods, are the Yanks and Rays, the epitome of wealth and the definition of frugal brilliance. So you know already where I am on this one. However, there's a reason that only 21/2 games separate them in the AL East after Saturday's games. If you used white-out on every roster name and just compared their performance, you'd have no idea which team to favor. One has five starting pitchers, average size 6 feet 6, 228 pounds, who've barely missed a start, and the big-league save leader as well as the fourth-highest scoring team in baseball. Their 153-steal speed drives foes crazy and robs hits everywhere.
That team would be the Rays, with a $73 million payroll, just a few million higher than the Nationals. They hold a 6-5 season edge over the Yanks. But here's what to watch: The Yankees, who have won eight in a row, need to knock the Rays out in the next 21/2 weeks - and they may do it. Why? Because the season's last 10 days are an open manhole cover waiting for the Yanks. The Rays play 10 with losers. The Yanks' last nine games include six with the Red Sox, a .567 team that would probably win the National League wild card but is all but dead in the American League. However, even the dead shall rise, in New England, when pinstripes pass by.
If you want a taste of the AL East race up close, the Rays are in Baltimore this weekend and the Yanks arrive in Camden Yards the weekend after next. In all, the resurgent O's still play the pair of contenders 10 more times.
However, the best local fun may be watching the Nats play a crucial role in the NL East race, where the Braves, who lost Chipper Jones for the season but traded for Derrek Lee instantly, were just one game ahead of the healthy and fully awakened Phillies. Just as the Nats demolished the Mets' chances two years ago, beating them in five of six games late in September, they now have six games each against the Braves, whom they play well, and the Phils, who have owned them - usually in close games - for years.
With a top of the rotation of Roy Halladay (2.27 ERA), Roy Oswalt (3.01) and Cole Hamels (3.31), backed by two certified stiffs, Kyle Kendrick (4.72) and Joe Blanton (5.25), the Phils define a team built for October. But how about September?
The Braves' last three games of the season are against the Phils - in Atlanta. Future Hall of Fame Manager Bobby Cox is retiring, so farewell emotions will run high with all hands knowing only a playoff visit will suffice. Also, if they can't beat the Phils, the Braves still might edge out either the Padres or the Giants from the NL West for the wild card.
Since the possibility first materialized in '72, the two franchises that were once the Washington Senators have never been in the postseason at the same time. The chance, remote but conceivable, that they could actually meet to go to the Series is too much goofy fun not to wish for.
Sure, the Rangers are lucky to have an eight-game gift lead in the weak AL West. But they can hit (fifth in MLB in runs) and their closer, Neftali Feliz, has the second-highest fastball average in baseball behind Strasburg.
It's the Twins who are going to have to hold on to their hats, and what is now a 31/2-game lead in the Central. Once, the White Sox, who started the year 24-33, weren't even visible in the rearview mirror. Now, thwarted in getting Adam Dunn at the trade deadline, they've just added Manny Ramirez to a lineup that already had muscle.
Oh, and Edwin Jackson, expendable in Arizona (6-10, 5.16), has lit it up in his last five Chisox starts with a 1.47 ERA and three 10-strikeout games. Jackson could always throw the ball through a wall. But suddenly, the wall is directly aligned with the strike zone.
The Twins have lost Justin Morneau, merely an MVP and runner-up MVP, for the season and have had to rebuild their bullpen in a year without Joe Nathan. Yet they've done it. With ex-Nats Matt Capps and Jon Rauch, as well as veteran lefties Brian Fuentes and Randy Flores, Minnesota has one of the game's deepest bullpens. Besides their beautiful new stadium, and the huge crowds it has summoned, Minnesota has another secret weapon: The White Sox are still managed by Ozzie Guillen.
So, there you have it - almost everything except the most fascinating stretch-run team in baseball: the apparently collapsing Padres. Little more than a week ago, they were on pace for 98 wins and a comfortable final month capturing the NL West flag behind the lowest ERA in the game, the deepest power-arm bullpen and sound fundamentals. Now they have lost nine in a row. The Giants, depending on humble, veteran bats such as Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen, were just 21/2 games back going into Saturday night's late game against the Dodgers.
The Padres may offer a lesson to all those losing teams that have a plan to get much, much better and do it very, very fast. San Diego went 63-99 in '08, then improved to 75-87 last year - not too far from the kind of 10-win improvement the Nats are on track for this season. However, a jump of 20-plus wins on top of a dozen-win leap the previous year is almost unheard of, as the Pads are discovering. Now, they don't just have to perform, but do it under unfamiliar pressure.
Watch the Pads if you want to see what happens - both exhilarating and traumatic - when you try to go from 99 losses to serious playoff contention in a couple of seasons. It is close to a universal dream among losing teams, including the Nats and O's at the moment. Only a couple of years - just you watch us.
But, as the delightful Pads are likely to demonstrate, it almost always takes longer than that, and pain is part of the process.
That doesn't mean that, someday, you can't actually get all the way to the top, or so close to it you're eye-to-eye with the Yanks. Ask the Rays. They arrived two years ago. Now they plan to stay.