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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Finish Line

September baseball is often associated with dramatic division races coming down the final week. Managers use every player on their 40 man roster and every trick in the book to win every game…every inning…every pitch. Often, teams that start the month behind the playoff pack by 5 or more games are planning for next year, packing it in and often experimenting with younger players called up from the minors for the month of September.


Instead of the great two way battles in which a half game lead swaps hands multiple times, we have witnessed two brands of playoff chase baseball in the major leagues. One brand is a furious, desperate, never-say-die fight to the bitter end of the regular season by teams that “should” have no chance at reaching the playoffs at the beginning of the month. The other brand is an uninspired, winded run out of gas by teams that appeared to be running away with a playoff spot, only to sputter in September and breathe life into teams left for dead.
Which of these will be put in the closet in October? 1


The Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays have played themselves into the American League Wild Card race. At the beginning of September, it appeared to be all but certain that the A.L. Wild Card team would be the loser, between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, in the American League East division race. Since then, the Yankees have clinched the A.L. East and the Red Sox began an epic collapse, having lost 16 of their last 21 games as of Thursday morning.

The Red Sox, having just dropped 3 games in a 4 game series with the last place Baltimore Orioles, take on a Yankees team, in a three game weekend series, trying to lock up the best record in the A.L. The Tampa Bays Rays, having just lost a four game series with the Yankees, face a .500-caliber Toronto Blue Jays team this weekend.

The Angeles, who appeared to be on the losing end of the American League West race when the month started, won 7 of 9 to start September and have played themselves to within striking distance of a playoff spot. Unless the Red Sox suddenly discover some divine inspiration in the final week of the season, the Wild Card spot appears highly likely to change hands.

Jered Weaver and the Angels have quietly injected themselves into the Wild Card picture. 2


When September began, the Atlanta Braves were hopelessly out of the National League East division race, as the Philadelphia Phillies were comfortably ahead of the entire National League. However, the Braves also appeared to be running away with the National League Wild Card, with an 8.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and a 9.5 game lead over the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

After a tailspin that defied logic, losing series to the then sub-.500 Los Angeles Dodgers, the fourth place New York Mets, the last place Florida Marlins and being swept in 3 games by the pursuing Cardinals, the Braves have rolled out a Wild Card road map to the previously stranded Cardinals and Giants. The Braves pitching went from “good” to “mediocre” during the month and its bats, which were below average all season, lost some of the power that it had. The result is a team that cannot put together a winning run at a time when it needs one the most.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, struggled with pitching woes all year long. Having lost ace starting pitcher Adam Wainwright for the season before the season started the Cards struggled with overly generous pitching performances all season long. The expression “better late than never” applies to the Cardinals pitchers, as their ERA is just over 3.00 in September, with a 1.97 ERA in their last seven games, as of Thursday morning. Starters Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse have led the September charge with a combined 5-0 record over 7 starts with an ERA under 1.70 and a combined 33 strikeouts as of Thursday morning.

The San Francisco Giants seemingly played themselves out of the playoff race with a complete absence of batting consistency at any level. Trying to make a push, the Giants traded for Carlos Beltran (.304, 20 HR, 82 RBI) from the New York Mets. After missing 13 games in August with an injury, the investment began to pay dividends. Beltran has hit .340 with the Giants. Riding a nine game hitting streak as of Thursday morning, Beltran has helped the defending champs win 9 of their last 10 games and have a chance, albeit a long shot, to return to the postseason.

Carlos Beltran, hitting .340 since coming to San Francisco, is holding up his end of the bargain.  3


It has often been said that Major League Baseball, with its 162 game schedule, is a marathon and not a sprint. I agree with that, except with the proviso that September, necessarily, must be a sprint for any team involved in a pennant race. Major League Baseball, which expands big league rosters to 40 men, recognizes this pivotal and exciting point in the season, giving clubs all of the tools they need for the ultimate chess matches leading into October.

The Angels, Rays, Cardinals, and Giants all appeared to be prepared for their September runs, knowing it would be their only chance to reach the playoffs. It appears that the Red Sox and Braves prepared for marathons from April through August, assuming it would be enough to get them to October. It also appears that they either failed to prepare for or weren’t built for the September sprint.

The goal is to finish first, not lead most of the way. 4

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