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Friday, September 17, 2010
Pennant races filled with a lot of intrigue

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

There is nothing better than baseball in September. There are pennant races wherever you turn, individual awards at stake, minor leaguers making their big league debuts, and this year, as many as 10 managers might be fewer than three weeks away from leaving or being fired from their jobs. This September doesn't have the same anticipation as in some past years because the playoff races are nearly settled in the American League, but there's still a lot going on.

Aubrey Huff
Aubrey Huff leads the Giants in nearly every major offensive category.

The best races are in the National League West and the NL wild card. Thursday night, the Giants took possession of first place in the West for the first time since May 6 after pounding the Dodgers 10-2 behind the surging Jonathan Sanchez (12 strikeouts). The win marked the sixth consecutive game in which the Giants allowed one or fewer earned runs, their longest streak since 1992. The Giants were once 7½ games behind the Padres; since the Giants moved to San Francisco, that marks the second-largest deficit they've overcome (in 2000, the Giants were nine games behind the Diamondbacks, then won the division by 11 games).

The Giants won two out of three against the Dodgers, losing 1-0 in the opener Tuesday to Clayton Kershaw, despite the fact the Dodgers had just one hit. The previous time Los Angeles won a game with just one hit was 1965, when Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game. Matt Cain outdueled Chad Billingsley 2-1 the following night. The Dodgers might not be much of a factor in the final two-plus weeks because they are a team in flux. Manager Joe Torre won't return next season, and will be replaced by current hitting coach Don Mattingly. And the Dodgers have scored more than four runs only once in their past 16 games.

The ridiculous Rockies had their 10-game winning streak stopped on Monday. They lost again to the Padres at home on Tuesday, but won the third game of that series Wednesday, 9-6, and are within 2½ games of the Giants in the West, and 2½ games behind the Braves in the wild-card race. Troy Tulowitzki hit two more home runs and drove in seven runs Wednesday, giving him 11 homers in 15 games this month, tying Ralph Kiner for the most homers in the first 15 games in September. Tulowitzki joined Kiner as the only players in history to hit 10 homers and drive in 25 runs in any 14-game stretch in September/October. The Rockies open a three-game series Friday night against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

The three games in Colorado were the first stop of a three-city, 10-game road trip for the Padres, a trip during which San Diego has fallen out of first place for the first time since June 16. The Pads won the first game of that series 6-4 to end a streak of 16 games scoring four runs or less, their longest such streak since 1990. The Padres scored 19 runs in three games in Colorado, as many runs as they had scored in their previous nine games combined. But they were shut out by Jake Westbrook on Thursday night in St. Louis. The Padres will get a boost Saturday night from Chris Young, who was supposed to be their No. 1 starter this year, but will be making his first start in 5½ months because of a strained right shoulder.

The Padres are also half a game out of the wild card race behind the Braves in part because Atlanta lost two out of three to the Nationals this week. On Tuesday night, Adam Dunn helped beat the Braves with a 455-foot home run. That ran the distance of his home runs this season to 14,331 feet, or 2.71 miles, which is longer than the distance from Nationals Park to the top of the Washington Monument. If Dunn hits six more homers, he will have at least enough distance to go from Nationals Park to the gates of the White House. But his blast on Tuesday wasn't as damaging as that of Justin Maxwell, who hit a grand slam to lead the Nats to a 4-2 victory on Wednesday. Maxwell has nine career home runs, three of which have been grand slams; he has as many grand slams among nine home runs as Al Kaline had with 399 home runs. Maxwell became the first player since Shane Spencer in 1998 to hit three slams in his first four chances with the bases loaded.

The Phillies get the Nationals for three games this weekend in Philadelphia, and the Braves play three games against the Mets in New York. The Phillies are in the midst of another September charge, winning 16 of their past 20 to open a three-game lead over Atlanta in the NL East. The Big 3 of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels have been sensational, making the Phillies not only the team to beat in the division, but perhaps the entire National League. If the Phillies make it back to the World Series, they would be the first NL team to do so three years in a row since the 1942-44 Cardinals.

It is over in the NL Central. The Reds are going to the playoffs, holding a seven-game lead over the Cardinals secured in part by the play of first baseman Joey Votto, the leading candidate for the NL MVP. Votto isn't going to win the Triple Crown; neither is Albert Pujols or Carlos Gonzalez. So, it still stands: The last time an NL player led in all three categories in September was Johnny Mize in 1940. Pujols hasn't had a great month, which is so rare, and the Cardinals are on an 11-21 stretch, taking them from division leader to out of contention. But if Pujols finishes the season batting above .300, which he will, that will give him 10 straight seasons (his only 10 seasons) with at least a .300 average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle had 10 of those seasons combined in their careers.

It is also mostly over in the American League. The Rangers have wrapped up the West, and already have manipulated their rotation so Cliff Lee can start Game 1 of the Division Series. The Twins have secured the Central, going 42-16 since the break, the second-best record of any team after the break over the past 15 years. They have done so without first baseman Justin Morneau, who has a concussion, and likely won't play again this year. In the AL Manager of the Year race, the Twins' Ron Gardenhire has to get significant consideration, having lost his star closer, Joe Nathan, for the season in spring training after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow, then surviving the loss of his star first baseman. Delmon Young (102 RBIs), Jim Thome and others have done a good job stepping in to replace Morneau. The White Sox made a good run, but it wasn't enough, and it didn't help that their big waiver acquisition, Manny Ramirez, has no RBIs or extra-base hits in 41 at-bats.

All that's left in the AL is to crown the champion in the AL East. The Rays won two out of three this week from the Yankees at Tropicana Field to move into first place by half a game, thanks to two home runs on Wednesday by Dan Johnson, whose five home runs this year have all come against AL East teams. All three Yankees-Rays games were decided by one run, including a terrific first game of the series won by the Rays 1-0, marking the first time since 1996 that one team moved into first place and knocked an opponent out of first place in a game that was scoreless through 10 innings. The game featured a matchup of Cy Young candidates CC Sabathia and David Price, marking the first time since 1985 (Dwight Gooden and John Tudor) that two pitchers with at least 17 wins each went scoreless through eight innings.

The Yankees head to Baltimore this weekend to play the resurgent Orioles, and the Rays will play the Angels at home. On Sunday in Baltimore, Andy Pettitte (strained left groin) will make his first start since July 18. It's an extremely important start considering the Yankees have played poorly of late, and need another quality starting pitcher for their rotation in October.

It is only going to get better in the East. It is only going to get better in September.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.