This may go down as the year that the All-Star Game counted, but September didn't. MLB's decade of selling the importance of home field advantage in the World Series was undercut by the Rays, Yankees and Twins, who spent the last month of the season playing as if having home field in the pre-Series rounds was of no consequence to them at all.
It was a reasonable approach—despite usually being the stronger teams, home clubs are just 45--39 in 84 postseason series dating to 1998—but the extended limp to the finish makes evaluating the teams difficult. Are New York's rotation issues real, or a function of being cautious with starters Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes down the stretch? Were the Rays a .500 team after Aug. 31 because their strikeouts caught up with them, or because manager Joe Maddon was evaluating options at second base, rightfield and DH? Did Minnesota's relievers have their worst month, with a 4.33 ERA, because they wore down supporting a staff of six-inning starters? And what to make of the Rangers, who played the entire second half on cruise control and shut down the probable league MVP, centerfielder Josh Hamilton, for the last month so he could let his two broken ribs heal?
The two AL East teams are the best in baseball. Tampa Bay has balance, with an above-average offense (in spite of the voluminous strikeouts), a deep supply of hard-throwing relievers and one of the top defenses in the game. The Yankees' strength, as usual, is their offense—the best OBP in the majors—but they also feature a strong defense that has kept a walk- and homer-prone pitching staff from doing too much damage. Both teams can win 2--1 or 12--11, with a steal or a homer, with a great start or four innings of relief.
New York takes on an atypical Twins team: It's better at the plate than in the field. Despite a low error total, Minnesota's defense is below average, getting to fewer balls in play than most teams do. That's a problem for their low-strikeout rotation. The Twins were fourth in the AL in walks and second in OBP, as veterans Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson supplied professional at bats. The absence of first baseman Justin Morneau, who suffered a concussion on July 7, seems crippling; then again, the team has gone 49--29 since Morneau's last appearance.
Texas may have the best bullpen in the AL, anchored by likely Rookie of the Year closer Neftali Feliz, a pair of Darrens (lefthander Oliver and righthander O'Day) setting him up, and midseason call-up Alexi Ogando (1.30 ERA). Unlike the other three AL teams, the Rangers are extremely aggressive at the plate and can have stretches where a lack of base runners stalls the offense. This is particularly a problem on the road, where they had just a .324 OBP.
The Twins have their most balanced team in years, and with Morneau they'd be on par with the Yankees. Without him, their small deficiencies add up: their lack of range, their ineffectiveness against lefthanders, their weak bench. They'll once again exit early. The Rangers will meet a similar fate, shut down by Tampa Bay's superior pitching staff and defense. Yankees in four, Rays in three.