NL East The Mets have turned it on the last two weeks (9-4) and have all but sewn up a second consecutive NL East title. Carlos Beltran has been the catalyst of the recent Mets-surge (5 home runs, 19 RBIs). With Beltran back, the Mets lineup is at last starting to resemble the one that abused NL pitching staffs all of last year. The difference this year being that the Mets pitching staff is vastly superior to that of a year ago. John Maine and Oliver Perez have suffered setbacks (Maine the physical rigor of throwing 150+ innings and Perez battling health issues) but both are still on pace to start 30 games, win 15 and have ERAs under four. Tom Glavine has continued to be what he is: the last true old-school, non-power throwing workhorse (and possibly the final 300-game winner of all-time).
Then there’s Orlando Hernandez. El Duque has quietly been one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the entire NL. He’s 9-4 with a 3.07 ERA and has submitted 17 quality starts in 22 outings. You may not see his name on the top of the Cy Young balloting come October, but you will assuredly see him winning in October. Like Glavine, El Duque is a rare breed and an invaluable asset on a championship-contending team. And don’t forget about Pedro. Slowly but surely (and fairly quietly) Pedro has been working his way back. Each start he’s made in Class-A ball he’s shown improvement. Whereas at this time last year the news about Pedro was worsening with each day, this season it’s the exact opposite. Expect the wiry-Dominican to be making his return to Shea against either the Astros or Braves the second week of September.
AL East Unless the Yankees can find a way to squeeze a five-game sweep out of a three-game set with the Red Sox this week, the perennial AL East champs from the Bronx are cooked. At seven games back in the loss column with about 30 to play, the Yanks are not only cooked, they’re filleted and about to be served on a silver platter to the Sox starting Tuesday. Now whether the Red Sox opt to devour the meal or not will determine if the Bombers can even continue to contend for a wild card berth. The Yankees are wrapping up a painful road trip Monday in Detroit, needing to salvage a split with the Tigers to pull back within seven of the Red Sox and stay within two of Seattle for the wild card. Currently 2-4 on the swing, the Yankees started in Anaheim where they lost two of three, which included a 18-9 thumping in the second game. Then they headed to Detroit for a game that was delayed four hours by rain. The game itself ended up lasting 11 innings and another four hours and change before Carlos Guillen hit a walkoff three-run home run at 3:30 in the morning.
To say the Yankees will be returning a disheveled and demoralized team to the Bronx would be a severe understatement (then again, a picture does tell a thousand words). Beginning Tuesday it will be time for Jeter et al to man up or tap out, because the nine-game homestand they begin against the Red Sox will ultimatley decide their season. After Boston, Tampa Bay comes in for three. If the Yankees can take one or two from the Sox and sweep the Devil Rays, they’ll be primed to assume control of the the wild card race with Seattle coming to the Stadium for three games. As for the Red Sox, one win in New York this week will finish off the Yankees, and the Sox can set their sights on 100 wins with heavy September-doses of the Orioles and Devil Dogs.
Other NL Races It’s sad to imagine the Cardinals have a realistic chance of defending their crown with something similar to the 83 wins that enabled them to win the World Series last year. The NL Central has just become that mediocre. That said, even though the Cardinals have put together a nice stretch of baseball (13 of 19) and closed to within two games of the Cubs, I don’t see either the Brewers or St. Louis thwarting Chicago down the stretch. The Cubbies managed to take over the division lead without the services of Alfonso Soriano. Now Soriano’s back, the starting staff has been stabilized by Carlos Zambrano (with Ted Lilly and Rich Hill rounding out a quality top three), and their September schedule is very manageable. Oh yeah, and have I mentioned that Lou Piniella is calling the shots on a playoff-contending team for the first time since his beard turned gray?
Out in the wiki-wild NL West the division will likely again come down to the final week of the season (probably the final weekend). The Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Padres will all be playing multiple series against one another in September, with each having to tangle with the hard-hitting Rockies a few times as well. Watch out for the Dodgers. Their offense has been anemic in August, scoring two runs or less nine times, including being shut out four times. However, this team showed last year that September is winning time, as Los Angeles won 17 games in the final month to tie San Diego with 88 wins and snag the NL wild card. The division is the Dbacks to lose at this point, but out west who knows what to expect.
Other AL Races Many feel that the Indians rigorous schedule over the last leg of the season will be enough to do them in and pave the way for the Tigers to back into the AL Central crown. I would have been inclined to agree with that line of thinking until I found out that Gary Sheffield could be sidelined for the rest of the season. Coupled with the fact that it seems any of Detroit’s “aces” can be tuned up on any given night I think the Tigers are going find it difficult to string together a sufficient stretch of consistent baseball. Cleveland’s lineup is good enough to win on a nightly basis, and with the viable tag team of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona starting twice every five days I think that should be enough for the Tribe to win 87 games and take the division.
I’ll be the first to admit I had no reason to believe the Mariners would be even close to contending for a playoff berth come the last week of August, let alone occupying one. Nonetheless, the Angels have watched Seattle trim their AL West lead down to two games, as well as take control of the wild card chase. Felix Hernandez is undoubtedly the ace of what is the weakest starting staff of contending AL teams, and he has only thrown 11 quality starts in 23 appearances. With the likes of Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, and Jeff Weaver rounding out the Mariners staff, there’s no way this team wins the 90 games necessary to overtake either the Angels for the division or the Yankees for the wild card.