Something to play for (cont.)
Cliff Lee, Indians
With his 20th victory of the season on Monday night, the Indians' lanky lefty has all but engraved his name on the AL Cy Young award. For the rest of September, we'll just have to see how high he can go. As it is, Lee not only leads all of baseball in wins and winning percentage (20-2), but he leads everybody in ERA, too (2.32).
In his last 10 starts, Lee is 9-0 with a 2.14 ERA. He's lasted an average of better than seven innings each start. With at least five more starts, Lee has a chance to win more games than anyone has since Bob Welch won 27 for the A's in 1990.
Josh Hamilton, Rangers
Hamilton's comeback from years of drug abuse has been one of the most heartwarming stories of the season. He has a chance to cap it with a home run title and, if things go really right, the AL MVP award.
In his first year in Texas, Hamilton hit .310 in the first half, with 21 home runs and 95 RBIs. It was good enough to get him selected to the All-Star Game, where he put on a phenomenal show at the Home Run Derby before tiring and losing to Justin Morneau of the Twins.
The second half hasn't been nearly as kind to Hamilton, who already has played 43 more games than he did last year during his rookie season. Despite clearly slowing down, Hamilton is third in the league with 31 homers and leads all of baseball with 118 RBIs.
As far as league MVP, it is a long shot. Hamilton has been mentioned -- Boston's Kevin Youkilis, an MVP candidate himself, lumped Hamilton in with Carlos Quentin of the White Sox -- but, numbers-wise, he may not be the MVP on his team. That honor probably would go to Bradley.
Gary Sheffield, Tigers
No team has been more disappointing this year than Detroit, and maybe no player as frustrated as Sheffield, who is having the worst season of his 21-year career. Still, he has a chance this month to become only the 25th player in history to reach 500 career home runs.
Sheffield, 39, has dealt with a torn tendon in his finger, a shoulder still sore from surgery last fall, a pulled oblique muscle and other various injuries, but he needs only seven home runs to become the sixth active player (with Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez) with 500 home runs. Only one player with 500 home runs who is eligible for the Hall of Fame has not been inducted: Mark McGwire.
A.J. Burnett, Blue Jays
A lot of players will be using September to beef up their resumes in anticipation of a free-agent winter. Maybe none could gain more from this month than the 31-year-old Burnett.
When he signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Jays in December of 2005, Burnett and his agents included in it a chance to get out of the contract after the 2008 season. At $12 million a year, at the time it seemed like a ludicrous bit of legalese. Now, it looks like money in the bank.
Burnett is fully expected to take off for greener pastures this offseason, but before he leaves, he has a chance to capture the AL strikeout crown. Burnett (16-10, 4.48 ERA) has 193 strikeouts right now, 10 more than the Angels' Ervin Santana and 15 more than his Toronto teammate, Roy Halladay. If he gets the title, it'd mark the first time that the right-handed Burnett, who already has started 29 games this season, led the league in any major pitching category.
Greg Maddux, Dodgers
In his second tour with the Dodgers in the past three years, and with 354 career wins, Maddux is approaching yet another milepost. After 23 years and 740 starts, Maddux is now two good starts away from reaching 5,000 innings pitched in his career.
The way Maddux is, he probably doesn't know that. The way he is, he definitely doesn't care.
Still, with 15 2/3 more innings, Maddux will reach 5,000, a remarkable show of durability for a pitcher. Only 12 others in history have put in that many innings, and nobody since Nolan Ryan passed 5,000 in 1993. As if Maddux needed any help in getting to Cooperstown: Every pitcher who has thrown 5,000 innings is in the Hall of Fame.