This certainly isn't the September that major league baseball had anticipated. The month is already tough enough for MLB, with the excitement of college & NFL football starting up and a lot of baseball cities out of contention. But there's usually at least a few races to keep people's attention and build drama towards October. This year the AL West fight between Texas and the LA Angels looks to be the only one really up for grabs. A look at the standings shows the other seven playoff berths all but wrapped up here on Labor Day. To see if we can help baseball out, let's take a run through the Lucky Seven, see what their weaknesses are and if an epic collapse might stir the juices of anybody outside Dallas and Anaheim this month. The number in parentheses by each team notes their lead for making the playoffs–not winning the division, just the wild-card.
Philadelphia (+16): Vance Worley, the rookie pitcher who's been a revelation as the #4 starter with a 10-1 record and 2.85 ERA is starting to show some cracks. In his last four starts, that ERA has jumped up to 4.95. The Phils also have some veterans in the lineup really slowing down, notably Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez. It creates an interesting situation for Charlie Manuel, who has kids ready to step in, with Michael Martinez and John Mayberry both swinging the bat well. But that's it for this team's problems. It boils down to the equivalent of saying a millionaire has a car that needs an oil change.
Atlanta (+8.5): The Braves are starting to get some pitching problems going, as Jair Jurrjens strong first half is a faint memory and his ERA is over 5 for the last month. Offensively, while Atlanta got Brian McCann and Martin Prado back from the disabled list, both have been mired in bad slumps since returning. And Jason Heyward's sophomore jinx continues unabated as the talented rightfielder can't get anything at all going at the plate. Finally, while the bullpen trio of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty have been excellent, they have worked a lot. Because of the size of their lead the Braves look safe, but they do have some definite red flags.
Milwaukee (+9.5): They were swept three in a row at home by St. Louis last week and start their final three-game set with the second-place Cards this afternoon on the road. That lack of killer instinct by itself is a warning. On the field, the left side of the infield is a big liability, and Rickie Weeks still isn't back from his ankle problems. Up the middle, young catcher Jonathan Lucroy is slumping and Nyjer Morgan in center is coming back to earth. Here too, the lead is large, the pitching is good top to bottom and the stars–Braun and Fielder–are locked in. But Milwaukee has its own set of issues.
Arizona (+7): Kirk Gibson's feisty Diamondbacks pushed themselves onto this list by taking two of three in San Francisco last weekend, including a showdown of aces, as Ian Kennedy beat Tim Lincecum on Saturday one day after the Giants opened the series with a win. As Kennedy pitches like a true #1 and starters like Daniel Hudson and Josh Collmenter continue to come through, it's tough to pick nits with this team. The loss of Stephen Drew for the year at shortstop continues to hurt, as Willie Bloomquist isn't up to snuff. But overall, Arizona is coming together at the right time.
NY Yankees (+9.5): While C.C. Sabathia turned in a strong outing yesterday, no one in the rotation has really been consistently good over the past month. The Yanks can realistically count on Sabathia to turn around and be a buffer against any type of extended September slide, but Bartolo Colon has worn down (5.17 ERA in his last three starts), Phil Hughes has never gotten started, and one manageable outing by A.J. Burnett in Fenway last week doesn't suddenly make him reliable. Lack of starting pitching depth always makes one a candidate for a slide, but then again this is nothing Joe Girardi hasn't dealt with all year.
Boston (+8.5): The story all year in the AL East has been the problems both the Red Sox and Yanks have in the back of their rotations. John Lackey's seeming revival after a cortisone shot in his elbow was an illusion–his ERA's up to near 6 just over the last month and he was rocked by Texas on Sunday. Tim Wakefield remains easy to root for and eats up some innings, but Erik Bedard is the team's third-best starter right now behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. A mid-September return by Clay Bucholz would be a big boost to Red Sox Nation, as would consistent hitting from Carl Crawford and stability in rightfield.
Detroit (+6.5): Clearly the most likely place for an unexpected race is the AL Central, with the Tigers' lead being the smallest of the Lucky Seven and the pitching being a huge question mark on any night Justin Verlander isn't on the mound. Doug Fister has started to settle down and pitch better after struggling in his initial outings after the trade that brought him in from Seattle. Working in Detroit's favor is that their bullpen is coming together well and the offense is very good, although the loss of Brennan Boesch for the season is a blow. Magglio Ordonez is back in the lineup and needs to find the form of his youth. The biggest thing in the Tigers' favor though is they just beat back one challenge by sweeping the White Sox and dropping them 8.5 games back. Now the second-place Indians are on the docket for a three-game set that starts today.
The case for any of these seven teams to be caught from behind looks pretty flimsy when we put it up to close scrutiny. But if you want drama in September beyond the AL West, that's what you're stuck hoping for.
*It's Closing Day at Saratoga Monday, while Del Mar out west is set to wrap it up September 7. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.