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Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Nothing beats baseball in September

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

If you subscribe to the notion that September is a better month than October for pure, all-around baseball excitement, a heart-stopping sequence from the 2011 season makes the point more eloquently than words could ever convey.

It was approaching midnight on Sept. 28, 2011 when the world turned upside-down. After Dan Johnson homered to bring the Tampa Bay Rays back from a 7-0 deficit against the New York Yankees, Freddie Freeman grounded out to end the Atlanta Braves' season and the Baltimore Orioles' Robert Andino delivered an RBI single off Jonathan Papelbon to complete a Boston Red Sox meltdown. The clock struck 12, Evan Longoria hit a solo homer to beat New York, and everyone collapsed from exhaustion.

Six teams. Three finales in 25 minutes. Rapid-fire changes in the narrative. It was a recipe for baseball insanity.

Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays had a wild celebration when they secured a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season on Sept. 28, 2011.

Rays manager Joe Maddon was on hand for 33.3 percent of the festivities, and he can appreciate the swirl of emotions. He has discussed the topic numerous times through the years with his old pal, Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia.

"To be in position in September with a legitimate shot at the playoffs creates a different kind of feel to the entire month," Maddon said. "The weather cools down and the hue of the light in the afternoon is a little bit different. A lot of people say it's football weather. Soche and I always used to kid, 'No, no, no, it's playoff weather.'"

While October gets all the hype and September baseball routinely gets overshadowed by football tailgating and fantasy drafting, the final month of the regular season squeezes in more highs, lows, disparate storylines and wildly conflicting emotions than any segment of the baseball calendar. Bats drag because of fatigue, and injuries test a player's fortitude. The dog days are gone and the finish line is in sight. Scoreboard watching is inevitable, but as rosters expand, players need to be vigilant to stake out a prime seat in the dugout.

September has produced Fred Merkle's Boner, Gabby Hartnett's Homer in the Gloamin' and the first-ever Tommy John surgery (experienced by none other than Tommy John in 1974). Roberto Clemente collected his 3,000th career hit in September 1972, three months before dying in a plane crash. And Mike Piazza elicited one of the loudest ovations in the history of New York sports when he homered in the first game back from the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The Yankees released brothers Matty and Felipe Alou on the same day in September 1973, while Seattle Mariners outfielders Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. became the first father-son teammates to homer in the same game in 1990. Cal Ripken Jr. passed Lou Gehrig with his 2,131st consecutive game in September 1995, and pulled the plug on his iron man streak three years later. Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett went 7-for-7 in September, and Stan Musial made his only career pitching appearance with a scoreless inning against the Chicago Cubs in late 1952.

Ozzie Guillen stepped down as Chicago White Sox manager in the month of September, and Minnie Minoso returned from a 12-year big league hiatus to play with the team in 1976. Deion Sanders proved himself the quintessential autumn warrior in 1989. During a memorable five-day span, "Prime Time" went 3-for-5 with two doubles and a homer for the Yankees, and returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

September provides a mix of triumph and despair, fortitude and capitulation, historical relevance and oddball trivia like no other. Why is the final month of the regular season such a treat for baseball lovers? Maybe this helps explain why:

Pennants are won

This is not the best year to trumpet competitiveness in baseball. The Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers have already salted away division titles, and Boston is opening up a sizable gap on Tampa Bay in the American League East. The AL West and NL Central are the only divisions with much suspense at the moment.

But the wild card is having its usual impact, with the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds all scrambling to win the NL Central and avoid the dreaded one-game playoff. The hazards of the new format were evident last year when the Braves seemed poised to advance only to be done in by a botched throw by Chipper Jones and a disputed infield fly rule in a wild-card play-in loss to St. Louis. Try telling the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds that finishing first doesn't matter.

History is forged

The most compelling individual competition is taking place in the American League, where Miguel Cabrera is chasing his second straight Triple Crown. Cabrera leads the league in batting average and RBIs, but trails Baltimore's Chris Davis by four home runs.

Value judgments will be dispensed and difficult choices made in the coming weeks. Cabrera has been bothered by a strained abdomen, and the Tigers lead the Indians by 8½ games and are cruising to a division title. Does he try to play and manage the injury as best he can, or take extended time off to get fresh for the postseason and essentially cede the home run title to Davis?

The failed pursuit of history can be nearly as compelling as the attainment of greatness. George Brett held America captive with his pursuit of .400 before finishing at .390. Roger Maris tied Babe Ruth with his 60th homer in late September 1961 before hitting No. 61 on Oct. 1. That achievement came about a week too late for commissioner Ford Frick.

Miguel Cabrera
Time will tell if Miguel Cabrera comes away with a second straight Triple Crown.

Pitchers have experienced some transcendent moments in September. Denny McLain recorded win No. 31 with nine games left in the 1968 season, while the Angels' Mike Witt threw a perfect game against the Texas Rangers before 8,375 fans in the 1984 season finale in Arlington. Roger Clemens struck out 20 Tigers in September, and Nolan Ryan whiffed Minnesota's Rich Reese for his 383nd strikeout in his final start of 1973 to break Sandy Koufax's single-season record.

At the opposite end of the pitching food chain, Brian Kingman and Mike Maroth both joined the 20-loss club in September. Maroth's employers, the 2003 Tigers, were so bad they celebrated on the field after losing 119 games -- one short of the Mets' single-season futility record. Following the Tigers' season-ending victory over Minnesota, Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" played over the Comerica Park loudspeakers and "Victory!" flashed on the scoreboard.

"The only sad thing is, we finally got rolling as a team and now we are breaking up for the winter," Dmitri Young told reporters after the Tigers rallied from 38-118 to win five of their last six games.

Award races are decided

It's a fact of life that players on contending teams are going to get more attention in the award races. But voters also have short memories and prefer that their award winners finish on a high note.

Of the 19 position player MVP winners since 2003 (Justin Verlander captured the award as a pitcher in 2011), 12 have posted an OPS of 1.000 or better in September. Only three -- Minnesota's Justin Morneau in 2006, Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins in 2007 and Texas' Josh Hamilton in 2010 -- logged an OPS below .900 in the final month. Hamilton, who missed most of September with two fractured ribs, was the rare MVP winner who pocketed the award without a bravura finish.

Chipper Jones sewed up the 1999 MVP award by hitting .307 with 10 homers and a .682 slugging percentage in the final month. He punctuated his MVP narrative with four homers in a three-game sweep of the Mets in late September, then told New York fans they should go home and "put their Yankees stuff on." There's nothing like a touch of swagger with that home run trot.

This year, events in September will help determine whether Clayton Kershaw becomes the first NL pitcher to win an MVP award since Bob Gibson in 1968, and if Yasiel Puig has the staying power to win the league's top rookie award. Puig needs to outlast a talented group of pitchers that includes Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Trevor Rosenthal.

New faces arrive

Billy Hamilton hit .256 in Louisville this season, but Cincinnati fans are understandably excited to see him a year after he stole 155 bases in the minor leagues. Detroit's Nick Castellanos and Oakland's Michael Choice are two other top prospects just up from the farm.

History shows that some kids make a quicker impression than others. In 2007, Boston's Clay Buchholz threw a no-hitter in his second big league start. A young Angels reliever named Francisco Rodriguez had an even greater impact in 2002. He arrived from Triple-A Salt Lake City at age 20 and proved he could handle the pressure and competition with 5 2/3 shutout innings in September. Then Rodriguez struck out 28 batters in 18 2/3 postseason innings to help lead the Angels to a title, and he instantly became known as "K-Rod."

Mike Schmidt hit the first of his 548 career homers in a September 1972 callup, and Jose Canseco whiffed in his first big league at bat 13 years later. Jim Morris was no kid at age 35, but he struck a blow for high school science teachers everywhere when he struck out Royce Clayton to christen his big league debut with Tampa Bay in 1999. Three years later, Dennis Quaid was playing Morris in the Disney film "The Rookie."

Some late-season callups help provide comic relief. In September 1992, Toronto catcher Mike Maksudian collected $800 from teammates who bet that he wouldn't be willing to swallow a live locust. Maksudian, who claimed to have eaten frogs, lizards and roaches, among other creatures, passed on a $2,000 offer from his fellow Blue Jays to swallow a rat.

"I've never been one to turn down a dare," Maksudian once said. "I'll do just about anything short of suicide."

Comebacks and collapses abound

Clayton Kershaw
If Clayton Kershaw has a big September, he could become the first National League pitcher to win an MVP award since Bob Gibson in 1968.

Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World and Bucky Dent's dagger to Boston's heart in a one-game playoff in 1978 earned them both a prominent place in October lore. But they wouldn't have been in position to strike their historic blows if not for stunning late turnarounds by their teams. The Giants forged a one-game playoff against Brooklyn thanks to a 39-9 record down the stretch. The Yankees, a whopping 14 games behind Boston in July, outscored the Red Sox 42-9 during a four-game September sweep at Fenway Park that became known as the "Boston Massacre."

In 2007, the Colorado Rockies won 14 of their last 15 regular-season games and beat San Diego 9-8 in a wild-card playoff game when Matt Holliday slid across home plate and barely touched it with his left hand. Or did he?

The Red Sox and Braves both missed out on the playoffs in 2011 thanks to epic collapses that were the equivalent of watching car crashes unfold in slow motion. Nate Silver, now with ESPN, wrote a story for the New York Times with the headline, "September Collapse of Red Sox Could Be Worst Ever."

Jobs are at stake

Yes, the games mean as much in April as September, but managers looking for contract extensions or job security are always helped by a good final month. Terry Collins, Ned Yost, Eric Wedge and Ron Roenicke probably won't join Jim Fregosi, Kevin Kennedy, Hal McRae, Roger Craig and the dozens of other managers who've been whacked before the end of September, but nothing states a manager's case for long-term employment like a strong finish.

In Philadelphia, Ryne Sandberg will spend the next few weeks trying to show he's cut out for more than a job as the team's interim manager. On the field, pitcher Roy Halladay's performance in September could go a long way toward determining whether he re-signs with the Phillies or continues his comeback in another town.

Heroes emerge. Goats and black cats, too

Ted Williams cemented his legacy as baseball's greatest hitter in 1941 when he carried a batting average of .39955 into a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics on the final day of the season. Williams went 6-for-8 in the two games to finish at .406, rather than sit on his average and round up. Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, Williams observed that he might have put more time into the decision if he had realized .400 was such a big deal.

Williams treated 10,454 fans at Fenway to a farewell memory in 1960 when he homered off Jack Fisher in his final career at-bat. His home run trot inspired John Updike to heights of rapture in his classic New Yorker essay, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a Ted Williams-caliber piece of journalistic magic.

Others players know what it means to have their legacies tarnished by events in September. Josh Beckett reached the pinnacle of his profession at age 23 when he pitched the Marlins over the Yankees in the 2003 World Series. But for Bostonians with long memories, he'll be forever remembered as a ringleader in the fried chicken-and-beer fiasco that symbolized Boston's blown division lead and cost manager Terry Francona his job.

Gene Mauch ranks 12th on baseball's managerial list with 1,902 victories, but he was eternally linked to the Phillies' late fold in 1964. Cerebral as Mauch was, he could only squeeze so many innings out of Jim Bunning and Chris Short.

Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and some great Chicago Cubs will be forever haunted by a late collapse that allowed Tom Seaver and the 1969 Mets to come back and win the NL East title. And to think, it all began with a mysterious black cat crossing Santo's path during a Sept. 9 game at Shea Stadium.

Human dramas abound

If Yankees fans think it's been emotional watching Mariano Rivera hold meet-and-greets with stadium security workers and ticket sales people in Cleveland and Toronto, imagine how tough it's going to be to say goodbye if New York fails to make the playoffs for only the second time since 1994.

Willie Stargell, Al Kaline and Willie Mays are among the Hall of Famers who've been feted at special days in September on the heels of retirement announcements. In 1979, the Yankees celebrated Catfish Hunter Day at Yankee Stadium, and a young left-hander named Dave Righetti provided a glimpse of the future in his major league debut against Detroit.

Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera's career could come to a close at the end of September if the Yankees fail to make the postseason.

In Colorado, Todd Helton is resisting the temptation to officially call it quits and will probably opt to go away quietly this offseason. But the love for Helton will still rain down from the Coors Field stands from grateful Rockies fans during the team's final home game against Boston on Sept. 25.

September also has room for more modest achievements. In late 2010, the Dodgers provided a feel-good moment when they summoned minor league first baseman John Lindsey, who had amassed 16 years and 6,342 plate appearances in pro ball before his arrival in the Show. After singling off Houston's Nelson Figueroa for his first big league hit, Lindsey did an interview with his hometown paper in Mississippi.

"It was awesome," Lindsey said of his debut. "It felt just like it did when I got my first hit in Dixie Youth baseball in Hattiesburg."

In 2010, Michael Young and Mike Sweeney felt that same sense of exhilaration when they made the postseason and ended a combined 2,954 games of playoff-free baseball. This year could bring a similar reprieve for pitcher Jamey Wright, who has a 92-126 record with 10 teams over 18 seasons. That's the longest tenure of any active player who has never appeared in the postseason.

If the Rays survive the next few weeks and make the playoffs, Wright will get off the schneid and hand the futility baton to Adam Dunn and Vernon Wells. If not, he will most likely show up for spring training next year and give it another shot.

That's the beauty of September, a month that brings finality and a sense of renewal throughout the game. The winners move on. The losers stay home and take solace in the mantra that's sustained Cubs fans since 1908: Wait 'til next year.