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MLB Playoff Race Heats Up

Johnie Freatman |
September 5, 2011 | 6:17 p.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor

The Angels need continued strong performances from the likes of Trumbo to contend for the AL West title. (Keith Allison via Creative Commons)
The Angels need continued strong performances from the likes of Trumbo to contend for the AL West title. (Keith Allison via Creative Commons)
Though the hype for NFL opening weekend may seem to be drowning out the rest of the sports world, it must not be forgotten: there is a baseball season in its stretch drive.

Sure, the pennant races may not be as tight as usual but as recent Septembers have shown us, nothing is a given until the magic number is zero. Here are three things to keep an eye on as teams try to secure their spot in October:

1. Are the Angels capable of catching the Rangers in the AL West?

Virtually all season long, the Rangers have been the class of the division. Somehow, even with a league-worst bullpen and vastly underachieving offense, the Angels have gotten hot and put themselves in position to steal a playoff berth.

If this is to happen, their upcoming series with the Mariners looms large. While Texas has to play three games against a determined Tampa Bay team, LA gets three against the lowly Mariners. Both teams then have similarly difficult schedules before they play each other in a three-game set to close out the season.

Though LA is hitting only .254 as a team on the season, they have surged in the last 15 games, compiling the highest average (.304) and runs per game (6.5) of any MLB team during that stretch.

In addition to the continued power of rookie Mark Trumbo and steady all-around hitting from Howie Kendrick, highly paid veterans Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells have recently emerged from season-long slumps

Starting pitching tends to increase in importance as the season goes along and in Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, and Dan Haren, the Angels have as good a 1-2-3 punch as any team in the AL.

Verdict: The Angels are a streaky team and if they can continue their torrid play, don’t be totally surprised to see them complete the uphill battle and upset the reigning AL champions.

2. Will it be the Red Sox or Yankees who finish with the league’s best record and win the AL East?

Keith Allison via Creative commons.
Keith Allison via Creative commons.
Considering the team that comes up short is all but guaranteed to win the Wild Card, this race doesn’t possess as much sizzle as it otherwise might have. Then again, there’s no underestimating the importance of the extra game in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park that would come with home-field advantage through the ALCS.

As in years past, these archrivals have a lot in common. Both have potent lineups that can each be found among the top two in runs scored, home runs, OBP, OPS, and SLG, among other categories. 

While C.C. Sabathia is putting together another Cy Young-caliber season for the Yankees (were it not for Justin Verlander) and Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have been exceptional for the Red Sox, there is concern on both sides about depth in the starting rotation.

John Lackey has failed to live up to expectations in a disappointing season; he currently holds the highest ERA of any pitcher with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Clay Buchholz has an injured back and the timeline for his return is still unknown. Though Erik Bedard is a candidate for that number three spot, he has a history of injuries and has only gone longer than six innings once this season.

Mirroring Lackey’s struggles with the Sox, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett have been hugely disappointing for the Yankees. Ivan Nova and Bartolo Colon have been solid but Nova hasn’t even played a full season in the big leagues, and it’s been a long time since Colon has had such a big role on a playoff team.

Verdict: The Yankees have won seven of their last eight to pull ahead of Boston. Expect them to continue this good play and nudge the Red Sox for the division. Don’t mistake this for a playoff prediction though.

3. Can the Diamondbacks continue their improbable season and win the NL West?

Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons.
A year ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks finished 65-97. This year, under the leadership of Kirk Gibson, they currently lead the NL West by seven games and are poised to complete one of the most improbable MLB turnarounds in recent memory.

However, it was just last year that a similar story was playing out in the NL West. The Padres had surprised everybody by taking a six and-a-half game lead on August 25…only to start a 10-game losing streak the next day and eventually miss the playoffs completely.

Like those Padres, this is an organization that hasn’t seen the playoffs in a few years. For some people, it’s difficult to consider the Diamondbacks situation without the c-word (rhymes with joke) entering their consciousness.

After all, just like last year, the San Francisco Giants are waiting in the wings.

That being said, the defending champions have absolutely no mojo right now. The team really hasn’t been the same since the devastating injury to franchise cornerstone Buster Posey in May.

Last year, they relied on a lineup that consisted mostly of castoffs, many of whom were shunned by other teams only to experience a collective renaissance visible to all in the crucible of September and October.

However, many of the key pieces of that lineup have struggled mightily this year on a team with a paltry .238 batting average. Just recently, veterans Miguel Tejada and Aaron Rowand were designated for assignment.

Verdict: History won’t repeat itself for the Giants. However, it will for Gibson. After leading this team to the playoffs, for the second time in his career he will be associated with the phrase, “I don’t believe what I just saw.”

_____________________

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