For some players on teams out of contention, all is not lost
These days, there's not much to cheer for right now in places like Texas and Atlanta, Cleveland and San Francisco. Unless, that is, you're into counting down the final days of an utterly fruitless, stingingly depressing baseball season.
Still, consider the case of Milton Bradley for a second. The Rangers' designated hitter is toiling away on a team that began the week 17 games behind the Angels in the AL West, in a town that hasn't seen a baseball postseason in coming up on nine years. Yet Bradley has something to play for in these last few weeks. Maybe even something worth watching.
Bradley will spend the Rangers' last 23 games trying to nail down the first batting crown of his six-team, nine-year career. It would be an amazing achievement for a player who, despite his reputation, is a lot better than many people realize. It'd be doubly amazing considering he blew out his knee last September, an injury that was severe enough that few expected he'd get back at all this season. Certainly not at this level of play.
Bradley, 30, did what a lot of athletes would do when faced with a difficult injury and a lot of nattering naysayers. He used those doubts like a favorite Louisville Slugger. "When I'd say I'm going to be ready for the season, I'd see it written like, 'Bradley claims he'll be ready,' or 'Insists he'll be ready,' like it wasn't really going to happen,'" Bradley told USA Today earlier this year. "When I saw those little adjectives added in there, it gave me all that much more motivation."
Bradley is probably better known for his hot head than his hitting, but looking just a little beyond the headlines proves that this guy can play. He was ready to go on Opening Day and has compiled a .445 on-base percentage this year and a .581 slugging percentage, tops in the AL in both categories.
What's more, he's hitting .324, three points behind the American League batting leader, Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia.
He'll have a challenge in getting past the younger Pedroia, who is playing for not only a batting title but a return to the World Series, too.
Here are nine more players, all on teams either out of the postseason chase or almost there, with something to play for in September:
Albert Pujols, Cardinals
The Cards have been in the middle of the NL Central race all season long. But they've lost four in a row, fallen 11 games behind the Cubs and are 6 1/2 games in back of the Brewers (and one game behind Philadelphia) for the wild card. Nobody in St. Louis is quite ready to call it quits with 24 games left. But, clearly, this will take a miracle of sorts.
Luckily, the Cards have their incomparable first baseman, who not only leads in the race for a batting title, but tops the league in on-base percentage (.470) and slugging percentage (.648), too. His old-school stats line -- .363, 30 home runs, 91 RBIs -- is impressive, and probably should be enough to win him the MVP award. He's been in the Top 10 in MVP voting in each of the past seven years, winning the award in 2005.
Pujols hit .386 last September and has a lifetime .343 average for the month.
Chipper Jones, Braves
The Braves are in the dying days of their worst season in nearly 20 years, a miserable effort made palatable in these last few weeks only by Jones' bid for his first batting title.
Jones, in his 15th season in Atlanta, has been close to a batting crown before. He finished second last year to Colorado's Matt Holliday (.340 to .337) and has been in the National League's Top 10 four times before this season. He's a lifetime .310 hitter who, for the past three years, has been swinging the bat better than he ever has. From the start of the 2006 season, Jones is hitting .339. No one in either league has a better average.
Jones, the 1999 NL MVP, was hitting better than .400 into mid-June before finally starting back down to earth. Battling assorted injuries all season long, the third baseman finally gave up his lead last week. He enters Tuesday's games hitting .358 -- only. 289 in his last 44 games -- trailing Pujols by five points.
Tim Lincecum, Giants
The Giants are in the middle of what is euphemistically called a "rebuilding" phase. No one is more important to it than their 24-year-old baby-faced ace, who is making a convincing case for the NL's Cy Young award.
Lincecum, with just 51 career starts, leads the league in ERA (2.43) and strikeouts (210) and is second to the Mets' Johan Santana in quality starts (22 out of his 27 starts). He is also 15-3 on a team that is 19 games below .500. Nobody in the league who has won at least 12 games plays on a team with a worse record.
Cy Young winners from losing teams aren't as rare as you might think. Of the last 11 NL winners, two came from losing teams. In 1997, Montreal's Pedro Martinez (17-8, 1.90) won. And in 2006, Arizona's Brandon Webb -- the sinkerballer considered the front-runner for the NL Cy this year -- won with a 16-8 record and a 3.10 ERA. Webb is 19-6, with a 3.19 ERA, this season.
Brian Wilson, Giants
Wilson may not be after a single-season record for saves like his Angels' counterpart, Francisco Rodriguez. But the Giants' closer will be content to try to chase down Houston's Jose Valverde for the NL saves title. Valverde has 38. Wilson is at 36.
Wilson, a right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and a hard, nasty slider, is an absolute monster against lefties, who are hitting just .194 off him. And he's been that way for most of the season. At one stretch, Wilson ran off 24 straight saves.
Overall, he is 36-for-39 is save opportunities, which gives him a direct hand in 61 percent of his team's wins. Only the Angels' "K-Rod" has saved a bigger percentage (63.8) of his team's wins.