Baseball races loosening up as final month of season arrives

Published 12:28 am Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Associated Press

The final month of the baseball season is upon us, and intrigue is unusually absent with the postseason looming.

The contenders have been identified, and the pretenders are looking forward to the offseason.

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Four of the six division leaders have cushions of at least six games, and the wild-card races are all but over as well. The Phillies, Brewers and Diamondbacks are rolling to division titles in the National League, with the Atlanta Braves enjoying a comfortable lead over St. Louis and San Francisco for the NL wild card.

Things are a little tighter in the American League, which features the only two races worth watching. Justin Verlander and the Tigers are up 7 1/2 games on the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, but it does get interesting on both coasts.

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are neck-and-neck in the East yet again. And even though the loser of the race will get into the playoffs, there is still that division title and valuable playoff positioning at stake.

Out West, the defending AL champion Texas Rangers have seemed like the class of the division for most of the season, but the Los Angeles Angels and their stellar rotation just keep hanging around. The Angels were 3 1/2 games back with 22 games to play, plenty of time to make their move.

The champion Giants already have started cutting some of their veterans loose, so if the Rangers falter in the AL, that would mean that neither team from last year’s World Series would make the playoffs for just the third time since 1991, according to STATS, LLC.

The Cardinals and Tigers failed to make it in 2007 after facing off in the ’06 World Series and the White Sox and Astros both missed out in 2006 after playing in ’05.

With so much of the drama missing from the push for the playoffs, much of the attention will turn to the MVP races, which are as wide open as ever.

Will Verlander become the first pitcher since 1992 to win in the AL? Will Matt Kemp be able to overcome the Dodgers’ lousy season to win it in the National League?

Here’s a quick look at what to watch for as the 2011 regular season winds to a close:


BEST RACES: All the action is in the American League this September.

—AL East: Ever since picking up hit No. 3,000, Derek Jeter has put all those questions about being washed up behind him and Curtis Granderson continues his pursuit of the MVP award as the Yankees hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the Red Sox.

—AL West: The Rangers led the division by as many as seven games in the middle of August, but Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana have pitched the Angels right back into the mix. They trailed the Rangers by 3 1/2 games when Monday began.


MVP WATCH: September performances likely will be the decider in two very interesting races.

—American League: Verlander (21-5, 2.34 ERA, 224 Ks, four CGs) has been the most dominant pitcher in the league this season, carrying the Tigers to the top of the AL Central. With no position player running away with the award this season, there appears to be a groundswell of support for making the right-hander the first MVP pitcher since Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista (.309, 40 HRs, 92 RBIs, 109 BBs, .637 slg, .446 OBP) is having a remarkable season, but may be hindered by Toronto’s lack of success. Granderson (.271, 38 HRs, 107 RBIs) is having a breakout season for the league’s best team, and Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez could split the vote in Boston.

—National League: Ryan Braun (.335, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, 35 2Bs, 31 SBs) and Prince Fielder (.295, 31 HRs, 107 RBIs, 31 2Bs, 90 BBs) have powered the Brewers to the top of the NL Central. Kemp (.320, 32 HRs, 105 RBIs, 37 SBs) is having the best season in the NL, but the Dodgers haven’t been a factor in the West for more than two months while Justin Upton (.294, 26 HRs, 81 RBIs, 37 2Bs, 20 SBs) would have to be considered the longest of long shots for the surprising Diamondbacks.


BIG SERIES: Unless some major surges or collapses happen over the next few weeks, these two series will be the ones to look forward to in the AL East and AL West:

—Yankees at Red Sox, Sept. 23-25: The Yankees and Red Sox meet for three games in the Bronx, the second-to-last series of the regular season for both teams. A sweep by either team could lock up the division title.

—Rangers at Angels, Sept. 26-28: If the Angels stay within three games of Texas, the final series of the year will give them a chance at home to surge to the top.


SPOILER ALERT!: As the season comes to a close, plenty of teams have been out of it for months. But a few have a chance to play a major role in how the playoff picture shakes out:

—Tampa Bay Rays: Playing in the powerful AL East has been too much for them this year, but they still have the talent to go toe-to-toe with the elite down the stretch. The Rays face the Red Sox seven times in September and play the Yankees six times in the last nine days, including a three-game set at the Trop to finish the season. The Rays beat the Rangers 5-1 on Monday in the opener of a three-game set.

—Oakland Athletics: It’s been another disappointing year for the A’s, who have gone through a managerial change and faded from contention after a decent start to the season. But with a talented young pitching staff, the A’s could be dangerous down the stretch. They won four in a row heading into Monday night’s game against the Royals, and continuing that winning streak could buoy their confidence for six games against the Rangers and six against the Angels in the final three weeks.