A’s, as in the Oakland Athletics, are in a pennant race for the first time since 2006. We have the second wild card to thank for this, but the no-name A’s have been the hottest team since July 1. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you assemble a competent pitching staff.
It’s no secret how critical bullpens are down the stretch, but one strong bullpen in particular could dictate a division race. The Cincinnati Reds’ pen has been terrific all season, but can they maintain their edge for another three months? The Atlanta Braves claimed the majors’ best pen at this time a year ago, but the high inning workloads began to wear on Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty over the last six weeks of the season. Reds manager Dusty Baker, never one to shy away from bullpen overuse, may see the same breakdown this season in Cincinnati. Closer Aroldis Chapman regularly hits triple digits on radar guns, but if he loses a few MPHs, his edge would be kaput.
Cabreras certainly have a way of leaving their marks on baseball pennant races and the playoffs. Ask any Braves fans — or Pittsburgh fan — from the early 1990s and they’ll recall the name Francisco Cabrera. At the center of three teams in pennant races in 2012 are Cabreras — Melky, Miggy and Asdrubal. Melky has been a huge lift for San Francisco’s offense this season. Miguel owns a permanent spot in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup and carries a huge burden for producing runs. He’s also playing a different position this season at third base. He is sure-handed and makes few errors, but his range is rather statuesque. Asdrubal, the Indians’ shortstop and No. 2 hitter, is anything but a statue in the field. If Cleveland makes a charge, Asdrubal will be a key reason for the team’s success. However, in case you’re asking, Edwar of the Rockies and San Diego’s Everth will have little impact on the races this season. Orlando played a huge role at shortstop for the Red Sox down the stretch in 2004. He followed that with an amazing run of making the playoffs with the Angels in 2005 and 2007, the White Sox in 2008, Minnesota in 2009 and the Reds in 2010. After breaking the string last season, Orlando is no longer in the bigs.
Two notable droughts are perilously close to ending this season. There could be postseason baseball in Washington for the first time since the old Senators met the New York Giants in the 1933 World Series. A much shorter, but perhaps more meaningful, drought is that the Pirates haven’t played in the postseason since Sid Bream just beat Barry Bonds’ throw from left field at the plate to end Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. The Pirates are also busy trying to make fans forget they have a 19-year streak of losing seasons in Pittsburgh.
Ellis, Ellis and Ethier
While that’s not a law firm, it is the three top OBPs for the Dodgers behind superstar Matt Kemp. With Kemp out of the lineup and Ethier playing sporadically, the Dodgers hit just six home runs in June. For Los Angeles to muster enough offense to ward off the rival Giants in the NL West, A.J. Ellis, Mark Ellis and Andre Ethier must support Kemp. The pitching staff is strong enough to keep the Dodgers in the hunt, but the lineup must catch fire.
He was the hero for St. Louis last October and the Cardinals need him to be as clutch in August and September this year. The fairy that sprinkled the magic dust in St. Louis around mid-August last season may not show up this year. Everything fell into place last season for St. Louis— especially in the bullpen — but Freese may need to produce earlier and more often to get the Redbirds back in the postseason. Waiting until their final strike in 2012 will be too late.
The Milwaukee Brewers are out of the race but that doesn’t mean that Greinke won’t be. The Milwaukee ace is being dangled as trade bait and could have a huge impact in a close race down the stretch. It would be unlikely for the Brewers to trade within their division, but adding a top starter to the Reds, Cardinals or Pirates would probably tip the scales in such a close battle. Another ace would give the Braves a real shot at the Nationals in the East, and probably lock up the second wild card. The White Sox, Tigers and especially the Indians would get an appreciable lift from Greinke as well.
Josh Hamilton is among the best players in baseball. He anchors arguably the best lineup in the game in Texas. There is little doubt that the Rangers will once again win the AL West and be favored in the American League playoffs. But they must be firing on all cylinders and Hamilton is an important cylinder. His track record for staying healthy for long stretches isn’t the greatest. If he spends too much time out of the lineup, the door will at least remain open for the Angels. And if he’s out for the postseason, all bets are off.
Since Stephen Strasburg’s recovery from Tommy John surgery began more than two years ago, the Washington Nationals have been handling him with kid gloves. Since the outset of spring training, the front office has insisted that their ace has a strict innings limit this season. While the exact number remains a mystery, it’s reported to be around 165, maybe as high as 180. Currently Strasburg sits at 105 innings after 18 starts. Ten more starts at six innings per puts him at 165 with two weeks left in the season. I’d love to eavesdrop on the conversation between general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson as they discuss shutting down Strasburg for the final two weeks and the potential postseason. That won’t go over well with the manager, Strasburg or the Washington fans starved for postseason baseball.
With the exception of 2008, Derek Jeter has played in the postseason every year since 1996. As he chases down Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer on the all-time hits list, Jeter is almost certain to add to his 152 postseason games and 191 postseason hits. The Yankee Captain doesn’t chase down ground balls as he once did, but he remains a spark at the top of a potent Yankees lineup that recently added Ichiro Suzuki.
The Chicago White Sox, thought to be in rebuilding mode this past offseason, surprised the baseball world by maintaining a lead in the AL Central past the All-Star break. They’ve done it with a rookie manager and as many as 10 rookies on the roster at one time. But it won’t be the rooks keeping the Sox atop the division. If Chicago hangs with the Tigers and holds off charges by the Indians, Paul Konerko will be the leader.
Lynn and Lohse
The St. Louis Cardinals have a potent lineup, a beleaguered bullpen and a rotation without last postseason’s ace Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. Former ace Adam Wainwright continues to make progress in his return from Tommy John surgery, but it will be Kyle Lohse and Lance Lynn who must carry the Redbirds’ rotation. The two starters must consistently get through seven innings to give relievers Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte chances to close out games. Having to bridge a gap between the sixth and eighth innings has been a disaster for St. Louis this season. And Wainwright, Jake Westbrook and rookie Joe Kelly are not providing much help pitching deep into games.
The Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen is clearly the front runner for National League MVP so far this season. He’s leading the league with a .372 batting average, is tied for third in RBIs with 66, and even though he did not homer until May 8, is second in the NL with 22 bombs. The Pirates’ centerfielder must continue to perform at an elite level to keep the Bucs in the race. And I believe he will.
Excitement abounds in our nation’s capital once again. Ranking 13th and 14th in attendance among the 16 National League franchises over the past five seasons, the Nats are ninth this year with a bullet. Averaging more than 5,400 fans per game better than last season, Natitude has swept through the District.
During the past two seasons, Alexi Ogando has been a key weapon for the Texas Rangers. In 2010, he was a critical piece in one of the league’s best bullpens. Last season, he worked both as a starter and reliever. While effective early in the season, Ogando recently missed five weeks nursing a groin strain. Since his return, he’s been a bit shaky, but he will be asked by manager Ron Washington night in and night out to get crucial outs. The deeper the Rangers go into the postseason, the more important the bullpen — and especially Ogando — become.
Oh yeah, him. King Albert has been relatively silent so far this season. I mean, he’s been very good, perhaps even outstanding, but he’s been subpar on the Pujols Scale. He didn’t make the All-Star team. He doesn’t lead his team in any major categories, unless you count games, at-bats, doubles and walks. But down the stretch, no pitcher will want to face The Machine with the game on the line.
Few fans are familiar with Jose Quintana, but the longer the White Sox stay in the pennant race, the more fans will get to know the 23-year-old native of Columbia. His record is 4-1 with an impressive 2.30 ERA. The White Sox have won seven of his 10 starts and twice he has pitched eight shutout innings, only to watch the Sox lose. He will have an opportunity to pitch some key games for Chicago in August and September.
San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy has resisted using Sergio Romo as his primary closer for much of the season since closer Brian Wilson was lost to season-ending surgery. But Romo will be the key to the Giants’ bullpen down the stretch. Whether it’s in a more traditional closer role, or more likely a hybrid setup-closer, Romo will be called upon to get key outs whether it’s the eighth or ninth inning.
On May 3, when elite closer Mariano Rivera went down in a heap shagging flies during BP, the Yankees’ season and pennant hopes hung in the balance. Not since 1996 had the Yankees known anything other than Mo at the end of games. Suddenly Rafael Soriano was thrust into the spotlight of closing games in the Bronx. And the former Rays closer responded admirably with 24 saves in 26 opportunities. Now he must prove he can be the man down the stretch.
Trout and Trumbo
The two position players most responsible for the success of the Angels so far this season are Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo. When the Angels recalled Trout on April 28 and inserted him at the top of the lineup, he quickly sparked an offense that had been scuffling for the first month of the season. The Angels won 18 of his first 29 games as Trout chipped in with 35 hits, 12 walks and scored 20 runs. No player outside the hitter-friendly Coors Field in Colorado in 1996-97 has ever batted as high as .340 in a 30-30 season. After last Sunday, Trout was batting .357 with 31 steals and 15 home runs. Although power-hitting Trumbo led the team in home runs and RBIs in 2011, he was essentially cast aside once the team signed Albert Pujols over the winter. Given reps at third base and in the outfield, Trumbo — a natural first baseman — struggled in the field but not at the plate. His bat has forced manager Mike Scioscia to find a place in the lineup for the improving outfielder. Should the Angels chase down the rival Rangers this season, Trout and Trumbo will be in the middle of the mayhem.
Recently the ultra streaky Braves second baseman Dan Uggla has been pretty ugly at the plate. But he hustled out an infield single and forced a wide throw that enabled the Braves to cap off an amazing 11-10 win at Washington after being down 9-0. Atlanta needs run production outside of catcher Brian McCann, who must be rested occasionally, and the aging Chipper Jones, who has played in just 58 of the team’s 95 games this season. The Braves could use an Uggla hot streak come August.
Having never managed or coached at any level prior to this season, Robin Ventura managed the Chicago White Sox to the top of the AL Central at the All-Star break. In what was supposed to have been a rebuilding year in Chicago, Ventura’s White Sox have had a terrific season with as many as 10 rookies on the roster. How will the young manager with the young roster hold up during the pennant drive?
With the addition of an extra wild-card team in each league, MLB is getting exactly what it envisioned — wild races for the playoffs. Eight of the 11 AL teams not in first place are within four games of the final wild card spot. Fans in Oakland and Toronto actually have reason to believe their teams can play in October. With the one-game, do-or-die playoff for the two wild card teams in each league, there is a heightened emphasis on winning the division. So expect many more meaningful games down the stretch with more teams in the hunt and fewer teams playing out the string as spoilers.
NL East: Experienced Braves players vs. the inexperience of a pennant race among the Nationals. But Washington manager Davey Johnson is a proven winner, while Fredi Gonzalez allowed a 10.5-game lead to evaporate last season.
NL Central: Acquisitions will play a key role in this division, as will the schedule in the final week. St. Louis GM John Mozeliak has shown the guts and acumen to acquire the pieces necessary at the trade deadline. Can Neal Huntington do that in Pittsburgh? The Cincinnati Reds end the regular season with a road trip to Pittsburgh and St. Louis. It’s always better to end the year at home.
NL West: Big bat acquisition. Will the Giants or Dodgers boost their offense the most at the trade deadline?
AL East: Don’t be surprised the see the Orioles promote super prospect Dylan Bundy in September, much like the Rays did David Price in 2008.
AL Central: White Sox GM Ken Williams will be aggressive on the trade market, even after the non-waiver trade deadline passes.
AL West: If the Rangers are blessed with good health, their lead will be safe. If not, expect some help down the stretch by Loenys Martin with his speed and defense.
One of the most underappreciated players in the game, Yadier Molina is the heart and soul of the Cardinals. Former manager Tony La Russa referred to Molina as the most indispensible player in St. Louis, even when Albert Pujols was in town. His leadership during games, his handling of pitchers, his throwing arm and now even his bat, are among the best in the National League. Should the Cardinals surge and win the NL Central, Molina should receive considerable consideration for NL MVP.
Zimmerman and Zimmermann
Whether it’s with one "n" or two, the Zimmermen in Washington will be at the center of the NL East race down to the wire. Jordan with two n’s is a starting pitcher with a 7-6 mark for the Nats. His 2.35 ERA tells a more accurate story than does his W-L record. In Zimmermann’s six no-decisions, Washington is 4-2. And in his six losses, the Nats have yet to score more than three runs for him. The third baseman, Ryan, is a fixture in the No. 3 hole in the Nats’ lineup. As of Sunday, since June 24 Zimmerman is batting .392 with 11 home runs, 28 RBIs, nine doubles and 24 runs in 25 games.
Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie)