Pennant races heating up from coast to coast
Barring a repeat of the craziness that was 2007, when the Rockies authored their improbable 21-1 run, the Padres melted down and the Mets blew up, the three best races should be in the NL East (where it's the Mets or their personal tormentors, the Phillies), the AL Central (where the surprise winner is sure to be the White Sox or Twins) and the NL West (where the Dodgers or Diamondbacks will wear the crown, no matter what anyone thinks).
The Red Sox may yet catch the Rays, but it's hard to imagine either one blowing their playoff date now; the Red Sox are too good, the Rays too far in front. It's still possible, though not especially likely, that the short-on-relief Brewers, who are starting to look just a little shaky, could possibly find themselves in a wild-card race with the NL East runner-up. But for now, here is where the pennant heat is hottest:
The Diamondbacks clung to first place from April 6 until Saturday, when the Dodgers made it two straight over Arizona and finally moved in front. The D'backs are in a tough spot now, much tougher than even their current deficit of 1 1/2 games would suggest.
The Dodgers are much better than their 73-70 record (so are the 71-71 D'backs, I contend), thanks to midseason pickups of Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake and Greg Maddux and significant first-half underperformance. But the Dodgers' real advantages are: 1) the way they're playing (their eight straight wins followed a losing streak of the same length), and 2) their finishing schedule, which borders on laughable (all their remaining games are against teams well under .500).
It's hard not to love L.A. at the moment. And considering their final slate of games vs. the Pirates, Giants and Padres, their biggest challenge may be to stifle the laughter. Cooperstown-bound manager Joe Torre also has to have the edge over the less battled-tested Bob Melvin, especially now that Torre has settled on the superb outfield trio of Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and has free-agent faux pas Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre firmly planted on the bench.
Torre also has Chad Billingsley and Derek Lowe pitching their best (both were dominant vs. Arizona this weekend) while Melvin's one-two punch of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren is suddenly struggling. Randy Johnson had to skip Sunday's start due to arm (and age?) problems, but while the D'backs were fortunate to be able to call on one of their many great young talents, high-90s throwing Max Scherzer -- and they may have more young talent than anyone -- this may not yet be their time.
Whoever wins this tight and tough division will deserve it, that's for sure. This was supposed to be a Tigers vs. Indians battle. But almost from the start, the White Sox and Twins established their superiority with two Cinderella stories.
If the Twins don't make it, they can blame .... the Republicans. Their recent two-week trip, necessitated by the Republican National Convention, resulted in their worst baseball of the year, and a 5-9 slate. But while their 2 1/2 game deficit -- a 1/2 game worse than before their trip began -- gives the Sox a decided edge, a late three-game series at Minnesota provides the Twins extra hope.
The Twins are an especially amazing story. To be in the race after having lost or traded their best pitcher plus two other starters, not to mention their All-Star center fielder, is highly improbable. Good for Ron Gardenhire and his troops for defying the critics -- though the bullpen and defense (two historic strengths) have been issues of late.
And while Gardenhire's guys are easily beating the odds, Ozzie Guillen, his men and his long-running mouth are doing the same on Chicago's South Side. Guillen gets a lot of headlines for his funny comments, but it should not go unnoticed that he's done a pretty good job with this team.
Of course Guillen's going to continue to have to make some magic, particularly after the injury to probable AL MVP Carlos Quentin, which could finish him for the year (a screw will be placed in his fractured wrist on Monday and he'll be re-examined 10-14 days after that). The Sox still have decent power, and if former superstar Ken Griffey Jr. can regain some semblance of his old form, that would certainly help. Meantime, Juan Uribe has filled in ably for injured third baseman Joe Crede. Despite their assorted aches and pains, the slipper will probably fit Chicago.
The Phillies aren't having the best of seasons. Ryan Howard is striking out even more than usual, Jimmy Rollins isn't nearly the MVP he was last year and they still have only about half a rotation, even with Brett Myers back from the minors and better than ever. And yet they loom as a major threat to the Mets once again.
Mets player are busy telling the media they won't choke again, and perhaps they won't (they certainly have responded to new manager Jerry Manuel). But they should rule out the possibility of Philly just stealing it away. For one thing: As long as a reasonably healthy Brad Lidge is anchoring their bullpen, the Phils' relief corps is in better shape than the that of the Mets, who presumably lost Billy Wagner for the season on Sunday to an elbow problem.
The Mets' real advantage would appear to be in the rotation. Even without John Maine (and there's no indication that he'll be back this year), the Mets' group of starters is far superior. Myers' curveball is better than ever, but after him and Cole Hamels and Ponce de Leon (a.k.a. Jamie Moyer, who shut down the Mets in Game One Sunday), Philly's got issues.
Meanwhile the Mets have gotten a spark from some surprising sources, including some older guys (MVP candidate Carlos Delgado plus Fernando Tatis and Damion Easley) and younger guys (Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans, Argenis Reyes) and new guys (replacement closer Luis Ayala). But occasionally the magic wears thin. Tatis, who has done a terrific job, looked a little lost in rightfield on Sunday afternoon.
And, if anyone suggests the collapse of 2007 is out of their heads, well, that's highly unlikely. Following the Game One defeat on Sunday, in the long hallway that encircles Shea Stadium, Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano shouted to no one in particular. "Nobody's scared. It's one game. Who cares?''
The Mets went on to win Game Two 6-3 and move two games back in front. Still, the collapse remains fresh in everyone's thoughts.