The Cutoff Man: Summing up and coming down the stretch

Bid farewell to August, baseball fans. The time to officially rule your team in or out of the running starts this Wednesday. It’s time for contenders and spoilers alike to turn it up a notch, in what has become affectionately and aptly referred to as September baseball.

September baseball is when every game is significant in the standings for teams with playoff hopes. September baseball means not walking the leadoff man; it means hitting the cutoff man. It means taking advantage of your opponents’ mistakes and not missing any chances. Good September baseball is what teams want to play when the calendar flips past August. Good September baseball is what the Colorado Rockies played in 2007, when they won 11 straight as part of a 20–8 month to force an extra win in October that sent them to the playoffs. Good September baseball is what the Philadelphia Phillies played and what the New York Mets infamously did not play in 2007. Or 2008, for that matter.

In short, playing meaningful baseball in September means getting it done.

There is a long list of teams this year that will be looking to play good baseball in the regular season’s final month. While most signs point to the most meaningful baseball being played in the American League (AL) East, where the Yankees and the Rays are battling it out for first place, the truth of the matter is that barring a giant collapse, both teams will make it to the playoffs as they own the two best records in baseball. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are the ones hoping that they can somehow get on enough of a tear that once Wednesday comes, playing good September baseball will not even matter.

A tight AL Central race began in early August with the White Sox leading at 58–45, a half-game up on the 58–46 Twins. But August has not treated the White Sox well; not nearly as well as it has the Twins, who went on a tear and by Aug. 18 had already taken a commanding five-game lead over their rivals from the South Side of Chicago. Minnesota has begun to level out, though, and as Wednesday approaches, both teams will be looking to take their game to the next level knowing that a spot in October hangs in the balance. The Tigers, though, have completely fallen off the map. After leading the division at one point in July, Detroit entered Saturday’s action 11 games behind the Twins.

Well, at least they’re not the Indians.

In the AL West... Well, it really doesn’t matter how the Texas Rangers do in September. Texas entered Saturday as the only team in the division with a record above .500, 9.5 games up on the Athletics, and with MVP candidate Josh Hamilton leading the charge, it’d take a Mets-umental failure for the Rangers not to reach the playoffs.

The National League features many more teams putting the pedal to the metal come September, especially with the existence of an actual wild card race. (The Yanks and Rays pretty much ruin the term “race” in the AL.) While the Phillies lead the wild card by a half-game over the Giants entering Saturday’s action, Philadelphia finds itself a mere two games behind Atlanta for the NL East lead. The Florida Marlins will be looking, as usual, to reprise their role as spoiler as the Phils enter September looking for a four-peat as division champs, and the Braves head toward the finish line hoping to send manager Bobby Cox out with a bang.

The Reds, coming off of a bad 2009 season and a less-than-enviable start to 2010, have stormed back to take charge of the NL Central. While the Cardinals continue to put up a fight, Joey Votto and the Reds have overall played much better and more consistent baseball over the past few months, and I don’t see them fading enough to lose their division lead when the heat gets turned up. Look for the Brewers and Astros to play spoilers this month, as the Cubs have disappointed everyone this year and the Pirates are too focused on making sure the Orioles don’t try to steal back the worst record in baseball.

I’m glad I didn’t put money down on my prediction that the Padres would be the chumps of the NL West, as their stellar pitching, timely hitting, and defense have catapulted this team into a perch high atop the division. The Giants, while still close enough to make it a battle for the top spot, should focus more on their standing in the wild card race, where they sit in second, right on the heels of Philadelphia. The Dodgers can also make a push for the wild card if they string together enough consistently good September baseball; otherwise, their chances will be just as low as their division hopes already are.

Good September baseball or Mets September baseball aside, I expect to see a very West-ful World Series that will feature division champs Texas and San Diego. There’s no way to slow down the Rangers’ hitting or the Padres’ pitching, which is why I say mark my words now: Texas in six.