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September chokes breathe life into playoff chase

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

When gasps muscle out "Sweet Caroline" as the soundtrack of fall, when three wins in a week-and-a-half amount to a playoff charge, when magic numbers evolve from promise to nooses, what follows is a week of chaos.

Three weeks ago, more or less, we had our eight teams.

Then the Boston Red Sox won five games over 22 days in September, and the Atlanta Braves won eight.

Boos rang out at Fenway. Tomahawks went flaccid on Hank Aaron Drive. Hearts fluttered in the Sts. (Petersburg and Louis), in Anaheim, even in San Francisco.

When mediocrity would do – just plain old show-up-and-pitch-a-little-and-pick-up-the-occasional-runner-on-third-with-less-than-two-out effort, mediocrity became some distant, unreachable objective.

One man's choke is another's opportunity, of course, which means we're back to September baseball and the thrill of the chase.

Or, as David Ortiz(notes) described it to reporters Wednesday night, "This is bad, dog."

Yeah, it's that, too.

With most of a week remaining, the postseason still looks like 12 teams spread over five categories and lots of scoreboards.

Ticket punched

Philadelphia Phillies (98-57)

The Phillies clinched the NL East last Saturday with their 98th win. They celebrated with booze, dancing and a five-game losing streak, three of them to the dismal Washington Nationals.

The emphasis in the coming days is on getting Ryan Howard(notes) and Hunter Pence(notes) back on the field, keeping Roy Halladay(notes), Cliff Lee(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) sharp, and reviving an offense that's batted .241 in September.

Remaining schedule: vs. Washington (1), at New York Mets (3), at Braves (3).

Comment: Manager Charlie Manuel says he'll play his "A" team over those final three games at Atlanta, both for the integrity of the wild-card race and the preparation of his hitters.

Division series: As of Thursday, they'd host the Arizona Diamondbacks. If the Braves don't win the wild card, the Phillies would get the team that does, either the Cardinals or Giants.

Detroit Tigers (90-65)

Jim Leyland's squad has been baseball's best since Sept. 1, winning 15 games and finishing what was left of the AL Central race. Now it's about setting up Justin Verlander(notes) for Game 1 of the postseason, and aligning Doug Fister(notes), Max Scherzer(notes) and, probably, Rick Porcello(notes) behind him. With that, they'll likely have the deepest rotation on the AL side of October. Nobody wants Verlander twice in a short series.

Want confidence? Miguel Cabrera(notes) is taking ground balls at third base. If the Tigers reach the World Series, they'd likely play Cabrera at third and Victor Martinez(notes) at first in the NL park.

Remaining schedule: vs. Baltimore (4), vs. Cleveland (4).

Comment: Verlander makes his final regular-season start Saturday against the Orioles. Brad Penny(notes) is scheduled for Sunday in what would be his last chance to earn a place in the postseason rotation.

Division series: Lots of possibilities. They'll start in New York, host the Red Sox or Rays, or open at home or on the road against the Rangers, assuming the Angels don't win the AL West.

New York Yankees (95-60)

The Yankees are probably wondering where everyone went. They were a half-game back of the Red Sox on Sept. 1 and clinched the division 20 days later with a 7½-game lead.

In spite of the drama-free stretch drive, manager Joe Girardi has issues in the rotation. He'll go into October with one proven postseason horse, that being CC Sabathia(notes). And the rotation gets pretty wispy after Sabathia and Ivan Nova(notes).

Remaining schedule: vs. Tampa Bay (1), vs. Boston (3), at Tampa Bay (3).

Comment: They don't have much to play for, but the Yankees could decide whom they might see in the ALCS. If I'm them, I'm eliminating the Rays.

Division series: If a team from the AL East is the wild card, the Yankees host the lesser of Texas and Detroit. Otherwise, they'd open at home against the Angels.

All but in

Arizona Diamondbacks (90-66)

Ian Kennedy

The surprise team of 2011, the Diamondbacks' magic number to win the NL West is two, with a weekend series against the Giants – the team they're trying to eliminate – coming.

Ian Kennedy(notes) and Daniel Hudson(notes) make for a potentially troublesome short series for somebody. The offense has gone somewhat flat in September, primarily because MVP candidate Justin Upton(notes) has batted .217 for two weeks, but Kirk Gibson's team keeps finding ways to get it done.

Remaining schedule: vs. Giants (3), vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (3).

Comment: The Diamondbacks get Matt Cain(notes) and Tim Lincecum(notes) on Saturday and Sunday.

Division series: If the Braves hold onto the wild card and the Brewers keep winning, the Diamondbacks would open in Philadelphia.

Milwaukee Brewers (91-65)

After a rough stretch that seemed to put their first NL Central title in jeopardy, the Brewers have won just enough to make themselves a little more comfortable. Ryan Braun(notes) and Prince Fielder(notes) have had nice Septembers, and a front end of Zack Greinke(notes), Shaun Marcum(notes) and Yovani Gallardo(notes) could be a handful in October.

Remaining schedule: vs. Florida (3), vs. Pittsburgh (3).

Comment: They should be able to hold off the Diamondbacks for the better record, which would keep them out of Philadelphia for the division series.

Division series: Today, they'd host the Braves.

Texas Rangers (90-65)

Mike Napoli

With seven games to play, the last three in Anaheim, the Rangers' magic number to win their second consecutive AL West title is three. They've won 13 of 18 in September and eight of their last nine, riding the hot bats of Mike Napoli(notes), Adrian Beltre(notes) and Ian Kinsler(notes) and a team ERA of 3.28.

Staff ace C.J. Wilson(notes) had a blister rise on the middle finger of his pitching hand during Wednesday night's start in Oakland, a recurring ailment for Wilson he said would not hinder his final start of the regular season or in the postseason.

Remaining schedule: at Oakland (1), vs. Seattle (3), at Angels (3).

Comment: The Rangers are playing to finish with a better record than the Tigers, which would guarantee them home-field advantage in the first round.

Division series: All in play: At Yankees, at Tigers, home against Red Sox, Rays or Tigers.

Hanging on/slipping away

Atlanta Braves (88-68)

This isn't going the way the Braves had in mind. They are 8-13 in September and are 4-8 lately. While the NL East race has been over for a long time, 2½ weeks ago they led the Giants and Cardinals by 8½ games.

Since, the bats have gone cold, the pitching staff – both in the rotation and in the bullpen – has struggled, and the Cardinals almost never lose. Relievers Jonny Venters(notes), Craig Kimbrel(notes) and Eric O'Flaherty(notes) are in the top five in NL appearances. Kimbrel and Venters, in particular, are showing the wear.

Remaining schedule: at Washington (3), vs. Philadelphia (3).

Comment: Tim Hudson(notes) is scheduled to pitch Friday in D.C. and in the regular-season finale. The Braves, meantime, draw Stephen Strasburg(notes) on Friday night, and Cliff Lee, Vance Worley(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes) in the final three days.

Division series: They'd open in Milwaukee or Arizona.

Boston Red Sox (88-68)

Erik Bedard

This is getting ghastly.

While there's hardly any missing what's going on in Boston, the preseason favorites in the AL East, here are the particulars of September: 5-16 record, 5.98 team ERA, 6.82 starters ERA, 5.03 bullpen ERA.

The Red Sox have scored nearly six runs per game and still can't stop what would be an epic collapse.

The good news: They lead the Angels and Rays by 2½ games in what used to be a very comfortable wild-card race.

The bad: There's more games to play, and there might not be enough pitching to last the week.

Remaining schedule: at New York (3), at Baltimore (3).

Comment: Jon Lester(notes) (2) and Josh Beckett(notes) will pitch half of the remaining six games. Tim Wakefield(notes), John Lackey(notes) and Erik Bedard(notes) are scheduled for the other half.

Division series: They'd open on the road, in either Texas or Detroit.

Still close

St. Louis Cardinals (86-69)

Lance Berkman

Well, well.

After shuffling along for five months, the Cardinals came alive 25 games ago, winning 19 of them. More recently, they've won 12 of 14 games, and so have made up eight games in the wild card since Aug. 25.

The September MVPs are Albert Pujols(notes) (.427 batting average, four homers, 18 RBIs), Lance Berkman(notes) (.394, 10 RBIs), the pitching staff (3.07 ERA), and a bullpen that has nine saves, seven by Jason Motte(notes).

Remaining schedule: vs. New York (1), vs. Chicago (3), at Houston (3).

Comment: The Cardinals are a combined 16-8 against the Cubs and Astros.

Division series: If they overtake the Braves, they'd open in Philadelphia.

Los Angeles Angels (85-70)

The Angels have done a reasonable job at hanging around and hoping for a collapse from above. It hasn't happened in Texas, but the Red Sox – and, to a degree, the Rays – have cooperated.

They are 12-7 in September, when their pitching has held up and the bats have perked up some. For the latter, the Angels can thank Erick Aybar(notes), Alberto Callaspo(notes) and Torii Hunter(notes).

Jered Weaver(notes), Dan Haren(notes) and Ervin Santana(notes) would make the Angels a very tough first-round draw.

Remaining schedule: at Toronto (1), vs. Oakland (3), vs. Texas (3).

Comment: Mike Scioscia has lined up Haren, Santana and Weaver for the three-game series against the Rangers.

Division series: If they get in, they open in New York.

Tampa Bay Rays (85-70)

David Price

As hard as the Red Sox have tried to hand this thing to someone, the Rays could be a little more gracious.

After a lights-out August and eight wins over 10 days earlier in September, the Rays lost three in a row in New York, scoring four runs in them. The Red Sox lost Wednesday night and the Rays lost ground, which can't happen – unless you get swept in a doubleheader.

Still, the Rays hold the huge advantage in pitching, handing the baseball to a quality big league starter every game.

Remaining schedule: at New York (1), vs. Toronto (3), vs. New York (3).

Comment: It depends on how the Yankees play those four games. The Rays' hopes could come down to a Bartolo Colon(notes)-David Price matchup in game 162.

Division series: Looking at the better of Detroit and Texas.

Have some hope:

San Francisco Giants (84-71)

Left for sort-of dead earlier in the month, the Giants have rallied for nine wins in 10 games, inserting themselves into the wild-card conversation with the Braves and Cardinals.

Indeed, with three games this weekend in Arizona, a sweep would bring the division back into play.

It's a lot to ask, but Carlos Beltran(notes) and Pablo Sandoval(notes) are raking, giving the Giants more offense than they've had all season.

Remaining schedule: at Los Angeles (1), at Arizona (3), vs. Colorado (3).

Comment: The Giants probably can't lose again.

Division series: A wild-card berth would have them open in Philadelphia.

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