Spoilers may hold keys to October (cont.)
What they're playing for: Chipper Jones (.362) is playing for a batting title. Mike Hampton (nine straight starts, a season-high 105 pitches in his last one) is trying to show any potential buyers that he's healthy. Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar may be getting showcased for what promises to be a busy winter.
The rest of them? Well, there's always that paycheck.
Why they should be feared: Jones just missed out on a batting crown last year, to Colorado's Matt Holliday. He wants this one. The famously streaky Johnson is on a good run, going 19-for-41 (.463) with a pair of homers and 12 RBIs in his first 10 September games. Escobar is 14-for-35 (.400) this month. And the Braves have made it known that this will be an offseason of change, making September a month-long audition process for many of their players.
Who ought to be afraid: The Phillies and Mets, the front-runners in the National League East are will find the road to the division title goes through Atlanta. The Braves play six games apiece against both the Mets and the Phillies in the final two weeks of the season. The Braves make their last trip to Shea this weekend for three games, zip home for three games against the Phils Sept. 16-18, host the Mets next weekend (Sept. 19-21), then travel to Philly to begin the final week of the season (Sept. 22-24). Atlanta is 7-5 against New York, but just 2-10 against Philly.
What they're playing for: An awful May (9-19) sunk the Rocks, but they're 35-29 since then, which is darn impressive for the NL West. No Rock-tober awaits, though, so the Rockies will spend the last weeks of this season simply trying to answer some questions for the front office executioners who surely await.
Will the real Troy Tulowitzki (.248, .320 OBP) please stand up? Is centerfielder Willy Taveras (.309 OBP) worth keeping? Is it time to say goodbye to Matt Holliday (.329, .417 OBP, 24 homers, 83 RBIs) and put him on the trade block this winter? Should they re-sign him?
Why they should be feared: Don't remember last year? Though this year's Rockies have shown no indication that they can come close to pulling off the kind of run that boosted them into the playoffs in '07 -- five in a row is the best they've done in '08 -- you can't count them out. Holliday is still a wrecking ball, especially at home (.345, a 1.040 OPS at Coors Field) and outfielder Brad Hawpe wants to put a nice finishing touch on another fine season (.291, .389 OBP, 25 homers).
Who ought to be afraid: The NL West wannabe winners, that's who. Especially the Diamondbacks. The Rockies host the first-place Dodgers this weekend for three games, then face the Diamondbacks next weekend in Denver (Sept. 19-21). And if it means anything by then -- and it very well might -- the Rockies will be in Phoenix for the final three games of the regular season, too, Sept. 26-28. Colorado is 2-10 against Arizona, 7-8 against the Dodgers.
What they're playing for: The Giants, believe it or not, are nearly a .500 team in the second half (25-26), which makes them a force to be dealt with in the NL West. How a team with Bengie Molina at cleanup for most of the season -- only the Nationals have a worse OPS from that spot -- is not losing every night might be a bit mysterious. But, again, this is the NL West. Offenses, clearly, have been optional for most of this season.
Why they should be feared: The Giants can, for the most part, pitch. Their 4.35 ERA among starters in the second half is the second-best mark in the division, behind the Dodgers. That's mainly the work of Cy Young contender Tim Lincecum (16-3, 2.54) and Matt Cain (a hard luck 8-12, 3.96 -- nobody with 180 innings gets less run support than his 3.41 runs per nine), though it may surprise you that Barry Zito has not been completely awful lately (3-1, 3.90 last five starts).
Who ought to be afraid: Both the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers. The Giants have four more games against the D'backs, in Phoenix, on Sept. 15-18. And San Francisco will play the final two weekends of the season against the Dodgers; three games in L.A. (Sept. 19-21) and three in San Francisco (Sept. 26-28). The Giants are 5-7 against the Dodgers and 7-7 against the Diamondbacks. Lincecum, by the way, hasn't seen the Dodgers -- and the Dodgers haven't seen him -- since his first game of the season, when he came on in relief. With the current rotation, the two of them should run into each other in that final weekend.
Here are five other teams that could make contenders miserable in the final weeks of the season (September showdown dates in parentheses):
The Orioles host the Twins (12-14) and the Rays (22-24).
The Royals are at home against the White Sox (19-21) and travel to play the Twins (26-28).
The Nationals play the Mets (15-18) in Washington and travel to meet the Phillies (26-28).
The Pirates have four games in L.A. against the Dodgers (15-18) and three in Milwaukee against the Brewers (23-25).
And the Reds go on the road to play the Diamondbacks (12-14) and host the Brewers (19-21).