There is an old saying in baseball, nearly as old as the game itself, that the road to the World Series inevitably goes through Tampa Bay. Well, actually, no one in the history of the game has ever uttered anything even remotely like that.
Still, if ever there were a season in which such a thing might be said, it is this one. As the calendar turns to September, baseball's month of reckoning, no team -- in the American League, at least -- will have more to say about who advances to October's eight-team free-for-all postseason than those lovable, laughable, spoiler-wannabe Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
As September dawns, no fewer than 18 teams are within striking distance of a playoff spot -- defined here as being either in first place of a division, in the lead of a wild-card race or within six games of one or both.
That includes the Washington Nationals, who are just two games behind Philadelphia in the National League wild-card race -- a jumbled-up, glorious mess in which five contenders are separated by a total of only two games. Every day seems to shuffle the teams in a new order, a shifting calculus in which a team such as the Nationals can seem all but dead one day, joyously alive the next.
"Everything can change in two or three days," right fielder Jose Guillen said as the Nationals prepared to play a twi-night doubleheader yesterday. "We can be in first place tomorrow."
Only two of the eight playoff races appear to be decided, with the St. Louis Cardinals cruising to the NL Central title with a 14-game lead, and the Chicago White Sox enjoying a seven-game lead over Cleveland in the AL Central. A third race, the NL West, is so dreadful as to barely warrant mentioning: The San Diego Padres hold a 51/2-game lead, but at 66-66, could be the first team in history to win its division with a losing record.
In the remaining races, including the two wide-open wild-card chases, everyone must play with one eye on the field and one on the scoreboard.
"The main thing is to take care of your own business on the field," said center fielder Mark Kotsay of the Oakland Athletics, who this week have sprinted past Anaheim in the AL West. "But everyone is sneaking looks up there" at the scoreboard.
The list of 18 contenders, alas, does not include the Devil Rays, who, in their eight-year existence, have experienced exactly zero meaningful September games. Still, the eyes of baseball will be drawn to Tropicana Field this month, just the same. That's because almost every contending AL team faces the Devil Rays at least once this month.
"Why just mail in the season?" Devil Rays pitcher Mark Hendrickson said this week. "Go as hard as you can and mess things up at the top of the standings a little bit in the process."
The Devil Rays, 27-19 since the all-star break and suddenly loaded with dynamic young talent, already have been messing things up at the top for a few weeks now.
They halted -- temporarily, at least -- the Cleveland Indians' surge with a three-game sweep in mid-August. They finished off the Texas Rangers' dying postseason hopes with another three-game sweep a week and a half ago. And they knocked the Angels out of first place in the AL West with yet another three-game sweep that ended Sunday.
In the coming weeks, the Devil Rays play four more games against Boston, six against the Yankees and three each against the Angels and Indians. Undoubtedly, somebody who does not make it to October will look back at those September games against Tampa Bay with deep regret -- forgetting, of course, that the road to the World Series always goes through Tampa Bay.
Here, then, are some of the trends to watch for this month, as you calculate magic numbers and wonder when it might be safe to go ahead and order those playoff tickets:
* Schedule: The Florida Marlins have looked like the best team in the NL East, on paper, all year long, perhaps never more so than now, with the addition of rookie lefty Jason Vargas to their already deep rotation. But the Marlins have the toughest road of any contender from here on in, playing every one of their 29 September games against teams that currently have winning records.
The Astros, by contrast, have it easiest, enjoying 18 games this month against sub-.500 non-contenders. The Nationals' schedule is somewhere in between -- with only six games left against teams with losing records. However, 19 of their final 29 games are at home, where they are 36-26 this season.
In the AL, nobody has it easier than the Yankees, who face the dregs of the AL East -- Tampa Bay and Baltimore -- a total of 14 times this month, plus six more against third-place Toronto. Of course, they also face six September games against the Red Sox, including a three-game series at Fenway Park to close out the season.
* Bullpens: The back ends of bullpens inevitably become more important down the stretch. That stud lefty setup man whom the manager hesitates to use in three straight games in April doesn't get the same consideration in September. Conversely, it is fair to wonder whether pitchers with high mileage this season (think Mike Timlin of the Red Sox or Tom Gordon of the Yankees) have anything left in the tank for September.
"It's different now. Down the stretch, you're going to go to your horses," said Angels first baseman Darin Erstad. "And fortunately for us, we have horses."
True, but the best bullpen in the AL is clearly the Indians', with its major league-leading 2.81 ERA.
Who has the best bullpen in the NL races?
"How about Washington's?" said Atlanta Braves ace John Smoltz. "You know when you face them, you'd better not be behind after the seventh. They lock it down. They shorten the game."
And who should be worried? How about the Red Sox, whose bullpen ERA of 5.46 is worse than every other team in the majors, save for Arizona.
* Addition by activation: Seeing a star player activated from the disabled list can have the same effect on a team as a blockbuster trade acquisition. Already last month, both the Yankees and Mets got major boosts from the returns of pitchers Jaret Wright and Steve Trachsel, respectively.
Who's next? The Red Sox are desperately hoping closer Keith Foulke's return from a knee injury will bring some semblance of sanity to the their chaotic bullpen picture when he is activated today. However, Foulke has struggled mightily during his minor league rehab assignment.
Other potential impact activations this month include starting pitchers Mike Hampton (Braves), Kelvim Escobar (Angels) and Wade Miller (Red Sox).
* Impact call-ups: Every year there seems to be a phenom who gets called up during the season and winds up blossoming into a superstar in September and October, to the supreme benefit of his team. In 2002, it was Anaheim's Francisco Rodriguez. In 2003, Florida's Miguel Cabrera.
Already this summer, Jeff Francoeur has energized the Braves, and lefty Vargas has added a fourth element to Florida's three-deep pool of young-stud starters.
September promises to bring even more infusions of talented youth. Perhaps the two most hotly anticipated are Minnesota Twins lefty Francisco Liriano and -- dare we say it? -- Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman.
* Mr. Septembers: A year ago, Vladimir Guerrero practically carried the Angels to the postseason -- and won the league MVP award in the process -- with a sizzling September in which he hit .371 with 10 homers and 23 RBI.
Who might be this year's Guerrero -- aside from perhaps Guerrero himself? How about Carlos Beltran? The Mets' $118 Million Man has been a major disappointment in 2005, but folks in Houston will never forget how he owned October last year. Perhaps this year he explodes a month earlier.
"He still hasn't gotten on that roll yet," Mets Manager Willie Randolph said of Beltran, who is hitting .267 with only 14 homers this year. "It'd be great for him to do it right now."
If it's not Beltran, surely it will be someone else, on some other team -- perhaps even the Nationals, but definitely not the Devil Rays -- that is about to make its move in baseball's most frenzied month.