Spoilers may hold keys to October
The whole concept of a team getting all fired up to play the role of "spoiler" is probably a little overdone. I'd like to think that professional ballplayers, all of them pulling down nice, healthy paychecks, are going to play hard in September whether it's against somebody angling for a playoff spot or somebody just trying to get this whole thing over with.
As it is, it's not as if there's some kind of glamour to being a so-called "spoiler" anyway. Everybody remembers that the Mets choked last season. But who was it that won five of their last six against the Mets to send them to their doom? (It was the Nationals.) And who remembers the 1964 Milwaukee Braves, who swept four from the Phillies during their famed collapse? "Spoilers," in the end, don't get anywhere near the notoriety of those that they spoil.
Still, every year, some team out of contention is going to make life a lot more difficult for one in it. The spoilsports aren't doing it out of some sort of spiteful September rage. The whole, "We're gonna take you down with us!" idea just doesn't fly.
But there are reasons for the doomed to fight on. Besides the fact that, you know, that's what they get paid to do.
"This month ... you're going to find out a lot about some people," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said recently, "because you're playing playoff-contending teams that are going to pitch you tough, that are going to do everything they can to not let you beat them."
Here are six would-be spoilers that could scare the pine tar out of contenders in the final couple of weeks:
What they're playing for: Like just about every other also-ran -- I'm not real sure about the Royals -- the Jays have some pride left in the tank. The Jays, in fact, have more than most. They're playing so well right now that, even though mathematics suggest that they have almost no chance of playing in the postseason, they don't even like to think of themselves as the "S" word.
"I'd like to see us finish up well. If that means being a spoiler by finishing well, then so be it," manager Cito Gaston told reporters recently. "But, I'm not intentionally going to think that way. I'd just like to see us play well the rest of the way and just put people on notice that next year they're going to have to look out for us."
Why they should be feared: They're 24-11 since early August. Vernon Wells is killing the ball (.331, eight homers, 26 RBIs since returning from a hamstring pull in early August). Alex Rios hasn't been what a lot of Jays' fans wanted this year, but he has 44 doubles (fourth in the AL), and this month he has four homers already and is hitting .435.
The pitching staff, too, is on fire. Toronto has a 2.38 ERA this month, best in the AL, and in its 24-11 run, opposing teams have just a .300 on-base percentage. The staff has struck out more than three times as many batters as it's walked in that stretch. Roy Halladay (18-10, 2.77) is at least in the Cy Young conversation. A.J. Burnett (17-10, 4.31) is pitching like he's headed to free agency which, after he opts out of his contract, he is.
Who ought to be afraid: The Red Sox. The Jays play them four times in Boston, starting Friday. And then the Sox travel to Toronto for a three-game set starting Sept. 19. The Jays lead the season series, 7-4.
What they're playing for: The fact that the Yanks aren't playing for a postseason berth is stunning in itself. This October will be the first since 1993, when Buck Showalter was managing, that the Yanks won't be in the playoffs. That leaves the pride thing, of course. But there's more. There always is in New York. With Hank Steinbrenner calling the shots after a non-playoff year, underachievers like Robinson Cano (.261, .295 OBP) should be extra nervous. They certainly won't hurt their standing with the big guy by finishing up strongly.
Why they should be feared: It's easy to say that they're the Yankees, and they should always be taken seriously. But they haven't done much lately; 18-20 since the beginning of August. Still, if Alex Rodriguez (four homers, 14 RBIs in 10 September games), Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina (still with a chance for 20 wins) and some others get on a roll, this is a team that can do some damage.
Who ought to be afraid: The Yankees host the East-leading Rays this weekend for three games and then await the Central-leading White Sox for four. New York wraps up a season it would rather forget on the final weekend with three games against the rival Red Sox in Boston, beginning Sept. 26. The Yanks are 9-6 against the Rays, 7-8 against the Red Sox and 2-1 against the White Sox.
What they're playing for: Few teams have been as disappointing this year as the Indians, a team that many favored in the AL Central. The Indians can't make up for their lost season. But at 71-74 after falling 16 games under .500 early in July, a break-even season is now a real possibility. Small consolation, maybe. But you have to take what you can get at this time of the year.
Why they should be feared: They've been hot, finally, going 24-14 since the start of August. A big surprise has been fourth outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who hit .318 with a .402 OBP and 16 extra-base hits (five homers) in August. Earlier this month, he had five straight multi-hit games, and in 13 games since Aug. 27, he's hitting 22-for-45 (.489) with just eight strikeouts. Cliff Lee (21-2, 2.28 ERA), of course, is putting the final touches on his Cy Young resume, Anthony Reyes has looked very good (1.83 ERA in six starts since his trade from St. Louis) and reliever Rafael Betancourt (0.57 ERA in his last 14 appearances) has been practically unhittable lately.
Who ought to be afraid: The Twins come into Cleveland for three games starting Sept. 15. The Red Sox host four games with the Tribe, Sept. 22-25. And the Indians finish the season at Chicago for three games with the White Sox, Sept. 26-28. Cleveland doesn't have a winning record against any of them.