On Labor Day, summer yields to feverish races
From expected to surprise contenders, intensity rises as schedule enters final month
Another baseball season has coasted by, gently rounding out the days and nights of late spring and summer as fans cheered, players got hits and hit some slumps, and teams jockeyed for position in the standings with designs on putting it together when crunch time arrives.
It's Labor Day, which means there's a month left on the regular-season schedule. In other words, hello crunch time, and after analyzing where we're at in the division and Wild Card standings as the calendar turns to Sept. 3, good luck figuring out what might happen next.
The 2012 season will likely go down as one of the most difficult to predict in recent history, and that's saying something considering the left-for-dead St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series last year. But take a good look around -- there's no dominant team that could be rightly expected to steamroll its way through the playoffs.
After Sunday's games, at least half of the 30 Major League clubs could be considered pennant contenders, and a closer look at their lineups reveals true balance. Each team has obvious strengths, a weakness or two, and X-factors all over the board that could come into play in defining the outcome of the next four weeks of play. And then there's the added wrinkle of the second Wild Card berth in each league, which is only making the races tighter.
With that in mind, let's take a look at these contenders, where they came from and where they might end up.
They are who we thought they were ... or are they?
The first club on this list is the Yankees, who have been in first place for much of the year, and for every perceived weakness (thin starting pitching, Mariano Rivera out, banged-up Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez) there have been tons of home runs and victories. Their American League East lead has dwindled, but Joe Girardi's Bombers are still there. Do they have enough to hold on?
The Rangers haven't just won the AL West the last two years, they've won the whole AL. So this dance is nothing new. What is new is the presence of Yu Darvish and Ryan Dempster in the starting rotation and Joe Nathan closing out games. The Rangers have had a streaky season, but September started on an upswing that saw them increase their lead in the division.
As for the Dodgers, they were similar to the Yankees and Rangers in the National League West until they lost their division lead to the Giants. General manager Ned Colletti's bold Trade Deadline and post-Deadline roster renovations that brought in Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Shane Victorino and others have Los Angeles fans hoping the Dodgers will click soon. They've got a month to make it happen.
"I think Matt [Kemp] was the first one to start calling it the fourth quarter for us," catcher A.J. Ellis said Saturday. "It's the end of the year. Time to make a move. All the pieces are here. Everybody knows it's the end, the last chance."
The same can be said for the Braves. GM Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez should be commended for keeping their club afloat despite injuries, such as the season-ending elbow woes suffered by starter Brandon Beachy, who was evolving into an ace. Paul Maholm and Kris Medlen have come up huge, Jason Heyward's offensive rebound has been a key, Chipper is still Chipper, even at 40, and the Braves are in the mix to avoid the late-season collapse they experienced a year ago.
The next wave
The Nationals have had one of the best records in the game for most of the year. They're forging ahead with a plan to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg, confident that a rotation led by Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson will be enough to keep them rolling. The fact that 19-year-old Bryce Harper has busted out of a slump is encouraging. The fact that Jayson Werth has been looking more and more like the Jayson Werth of old is even more encouraging.
And then there are the Reds. Solid, consistent starting pitching has carried them all year, they're cruising in the NL Central, and it hasn't hurt their postseason chances to have the best reliever of 2012, Aroldis Chapman, closing out ballgames. One can only imagine how potent they might be when Joey Votto returns to the lineup at full strength, which, by the way, should be happening soon.
"Obviously, I think the present is always the most important," outfielder Jay Bruce said. "But especially now [that] it's September and we've got a pretty good lead, it's a good time for us to ... really go and finish up September and hopefully go into the postseason strong."
Out of nowhere
This category has been more fun than ever, with the A's, Orioles and Pirates, all of whom were supposed to have no chance whatsoever to contend, strongly in play on Labor Day.
Oakland enters Labor Day on another unexpected tear, one that, believe it or not, has them within three games of the AL West lead. How have they done it? With a young, talented pitching staff and a resurgent offense that has gotten more than enough lately from bust-out hitters such as Josh Reddick, rookie sensation Yoenis Cespedes, veteran Coco Crisp and slugger Chris Carter.
"It's great," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "For a good portion of the season we were struggling, and now we're a completely different team offensively. There's a lot of confidence throughout the lineup. It's everyone that's contributing, and that creates a really nice feel within the clubhouse."
Baltimore can say the same thing. It might be hard to believe that a team with as much pitching inconsistency as Buck Showalter's Orioles have shown this year could still be within a good week of overtaking the Yankees in the vaunted AL East, but it's happening, and the Orioles believe.
So does Pittsburgh in the NL Central. Yes, the Pirates have to play better than they have in recent weeks if they're to earn their first winning season since 1992, especially after being on the wrong end of a three-game sweep over the weekend at the hands of the Brewers. They still have their powerful core of Andrew McCutchen, a sizzling Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, plus a bend-but-don't-break staff led by A.J. Burnett in tow to rally again.
"In 72 hours, the questions being asked and the stories being told sure turned around," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said Sunday. "It's just time to get after it. We didn't get it done here, so we got to move on and get right."
The waiting is the hardest part
All year, the revamped Angels have been waiting to get their groove on. First they was sitting patiently while Albert Pujols worked out his plate woes. Then it was waiting on the bullpen to improve. Then it was waiting for the starting pitching to get it together. They have enjoyed the fruits of a historic rookie season by Mike Trout and some solid slugging numbers from Mark Trumbo, but they're still waiting for a powerful run, and time is running out.
The same can be said for the Tigers, who have looked like the preseason favorites to win the AL Central at times and have looked like also-rans at times, but consider them on an upswing after sweeping the White Sox on Sunday and forging a tie atop the AL Central. Justin Verlander has been himself all year and Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson have made for a formidable lineup. The starting pitching must continue to come together for Jim Leyland's team to close like it did in 2011.
Don't you forget about me
And then there are the White Sox and Giants, both right there in their respective divisions, the always dangerous Rays, who despite slumping recently are still very much in the AL East and Wild Card conversations, and, well, let's not forget one more team.
The Cardinals. Yeah, them.
They were basically all but written off at this point last year and rallied out of nowhere to win it all. In a year that's setting up to be as wacky as this one, don't be surprised if they're in the thick of it again.
"We're giving it our best," St. Louis outfielder Jon Jay said Saturday, echoing the sentiment of every team.
"Every game is the biggest game of the year."