"You have to trick yourself into finding something to keep you going," says Higginson, who was hitting .284 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs. "Say you're playing the Mariners or the Yankees—you have to think that's your little playoff series. When you're playing other teams that are out of it, you have to have professional pride. You can also try to put up some numbers, so you can at least say you had a gratifying year individually."
The Devil Rays, the Rangers, the Reds and the Rockies are all dragging themselves through August, but perhaps no teams feel more dogged by the dog days than the Tigers and the Pirates, two long-struggling franchises that started the season thinking they'd improved enough to be contenders for postseason berths. "I keep telling myself this builds character," says Pittsburgh first baseman Kevin Young, who broke in with the Pirates in 1992 and hasn't experienced a winning season. Through Sunday, Pittsburgh had the worst record in the National League (45-71). "I must be building the Empire State Building of character."
For obvious reasons, it's a struggle for some players to keep from losing focus. "You can tell those guys have calendars in their lockers with big X's on the days," says Tigers first baseman Tony Clark. "Even with other teams, you can tell when they take batting practice that the sense of urgency isn't there."
Many players use the stretch run to generate hope that the predicament can be avoided next year. "These games in August and September may not mean anything," says Higginson, "but we have to learn how to win in these circumstances. Good teams have that third or fourth wind. We have to keep trying to find it."
John Smoltz in the Bullpen
A Spell of Relief In Atlanta
When he returned to Atlanta from a six-week stint on the disabled list (including two minor league rehab appearances) on July 22, Braves righthander John Smoltz was wearing a menacing Fu Manchu moustache like the one Al Hrabosky wore during his heyday as the Mad Hungarian of relievers. "I thought that the guys would get a laugh out of it," says Smoltz, who knew that after 12 years as a starter he would be working out of the bullpen. "Instead, they liked it."
Better yet, the Braves have quickly come to like Smoltz's relieving as much as he has come to like doing it. After missing all of last season following Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, Smoltz, 34, returned to the Atlanta rotation in May and went 2-2 with a 5.76 ERA in five starts. His elbow still bothered him, however, and on June 10 he went back on the DL. While Smoltz was on his subsequent rehab stint, manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone realized that it would be weeks—or more—before Smoltz could work even as many as five or six innings every fifth day as a starter for Atlanta. However, he could pitch one or two innings a couple of times a week right away.
"We could've waited for John to build up his arm in the minors, but who knows how long it would have taken?" says Mazzone. "Or we could add one of baseball's toughest competitors and best clutch performers to our staff a lot sooner."
The Braves opted for the latter and got Smoltz to agree to take the same step that Dennis Eckersley had taken 14 years ago. Like Eckersley, who made 361 starts over 13 seasons before becoming an ace closer with the As and Cardinals (390 career saves), Smoltz has quickly adapted to his bullpen role after 361 starts without a regular-season relief appearance. Through Sunday he'd pitched 10? innings out of the pen, building a 0.87 ERA with eight strikeouts and one unintentional walk.
Along the way he has developed a newfound respect for the middle reliever. "Ifs a much harder job than I thought," says Smoltz. "You can't pick and choose when you come in, and you can enter a terribly tough situation without good stuff."