Twelve storylines for MLB's stretch run

Twelve storylines for MLB's stretch run

There's stuff we need to know. We have six weeks to know them.

With just that much remaining in the regular season, 11 teams are done. Of 30. Eighteen have a less than 50 percent chance of October.

That leaves plenty. By now, three-quarters of the way through a baseball season, a ballclub generally has found its authentic self, as has its players. Sometimes the mirror is not very kind. It is, however, accurate. Sometimes, Hey gorgeous…

So, we made a list of what might shape the races, what might draw our attention, what might inspire us to tear the mirror from the wall and slam it repeatedly against our foreheads.

Are the Los Angeles Dodgers really that interested in winning this thing?

So, apparently, somebody told the most expensive team in history it could take weekends off. Their record over the last three – Fridays through Sundays – is 2-7. Kevin Correia, Roberto Hernandez and Dan Haren are rotation mainstays for the foreseeable future. The road from them to Kenley Jansen is long and winding. The left side of the infield is on the disabled list. On the bright side, the Dodgers have three series remaining against winning teams, two of those against the San Francisco Giants.

So, what's with the Oakland A's?

Jon Lester has been strong, but the A's have missed Yoenis Cespedes' bat. (AP)
Jon Lester has been strong, but the A's have missed Yoenis Cespedes' bat. (AP)

What did we learn from the trading deadline? Other than cell service in Philly must stink? Nothing comes for free. Since trading for Jon Lester, the A's have lost almost a run-and-a-half per game. In the past week, they've gone from four games up on the Los Angeles Angels to .001 behind. Now, October's October, you get there and take your chances. But you know when October's not October? When it only promises one game, and Felix Hernandez is standing between you and the rest of the month.

What decides the AL West?

By Friday morning, the A's and Angels each will have played 126 games. That leaves 36 games. Of those 36, 10 – 28 percent – will be against each other, beginning Friday night in Oakland. Already, the A's have won six of nine against the Angels, have a 2.92 ERA against the Angels, and haven't lost a season series against the Angels in four years. Also important to remember: In 39 career starts against Angels, Yoenis Cespedes drove in 35 runs (See previous item).

So that's it, A's or Angels?

There is a third outcome of course, that being the frontrunners in the AL West so pound the daylights out of each other that the Seattle Mariners, the best team in the division in the second half, simply step over the wreckage. They're 5½ back, pitching better than anyone in baseball during August, and getting some life out of their generally sorry offense for the past few weeks. It probably won't happen that way. The Mariners are probably playing for the second wild card. But wouldn't it be interesting if Robinson Cano made the playoffs and the New York Yankees didn't?

Speaking of the Yankees…

They're quite fortunate Derek Jeter is retiring, because otherwise you might have to talk yourself into going to Yankee Stadium. You know, unless you were dying to see Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran each hit precisely .235, or Jacoby Ellsbury battle Nori Aoki for 34th in AL on-base percentage. Given the injuries and flat play, it's damn near a miracle the Yankees have any shot at all. But, hey, so far so good on Masahiro Tanaka, and Shane Greene and Brandon McCarthy could be saving the Yankees' September, if not their October, a pitch at a time.

That said, the Yankees are three games behind the Detroit Tigers.

So what the hell is going on in Detroit? Nothing. Everything. Already, the Tigers have coughed up a seven-game lead on the Kansas City Royals and a 7½-game lead on the Royals. Those are two separate incidents. Collapses, if you will. With a quarter of the season remaining, they still can't trust their bullpen. Their ERA after the sixth inning is 4.42, which is marginally better than the Chicago White Sox's and Houston Astros', and in the ninth inning it's more than 6. Six! Justin Verlander has a 4.76 ERA and a squeaky shoulder. Miguel Cabrera is great, even leading the league in doubles, and still teetering on career lows for home runs and OPS. For all Dave Dombrowski has done for this team – David Price, for one – the Tigers are vulnerable because somebody has to pitch the last couple innings.

Which is good news for the … Royals.

Greg Holland (right) has 37 saves for the Royals. (Getty)
Greg Holland (right) has 37 saves for the Royals. (Getty)

Yep, 28 years and counting, and maybe this has as much to do with the Royals as it does the Tigers. Ned's fellas have, after all, won 20 of 25 games, haven't lost a series in a month, and are everything the Tigers aren't in the late innings. They have six games remaining against the Tigers and not a lot to worry about in between, so all they have to do is not think about, you know, TWENTY-EIGHT FREAKIN' YEARS, and they might actually pull this off.

We'd like to take a moment to talk about Jose Altuve.

For heaven's sake, he's barely taller than his WAR (4.2). But in a season in which offenses are historically Lilliputian, the only man with a reasonable shot at 200 hits is Altuve. He leads all of baseball in batting (.339). And the American League in steals (46). He's 14th in OPS, despite only 27 walks in 545 plate appearances. The dude hacks. If you can think of no reason to watch the Houston Astros over the next six weeks, think again. Jose Altuve is a joy.

The Nats look comfortable.

It took 'em a while, but the Washington Nationals appear to have discovered their inner roster superiority. Also, their league's outer mediocrity. Either way, they've opened a decent lead in the East and the Atlanta Braves do not appear to have the horses to become a serious threat. What's interesting here is, which team arrives on Oct. 1? That means Bryce Harper's stroke, Jayson Werth's shoulder, Ryan Zimmerman's hamstring (and shoulder) and Rafael Soriano's second half (7.71 ERA), among other things. If pointed in the right direction, a Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg rotation could be – and should be – a tough out.

Pedro Alvarez doesn't.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have hit a rough patch and have series ahead – in order – against the Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and the Cardinals again. They hope to have Andrew McCutchen back from the disabled list Tuesday night. The next two weeks, therefore, are really, really important. And on Monday night, for the first time in his career, Pedro Alvarez will play first base. He's had a bit of a lawn-sprinkler arm thing going from third base, he's hitting .208 over the past couple weeks and .177 for the season against left-handed pitchers. His next home run will be his first since July 11, along with his 16th of the season, after hitting a league-best 36 last season. So, yeah, if the Pirates are going to recreate any of their 2013 magic, the next six weeks will be large for Alvarez.

You know who didn't fade? The Brewers.

So what do the Cardinals do? The returns for Yadier Molina (thumb) and Michael Wacha (shoulder) are vague, though Molina could be back in less than a month. That won't entirely solve an atrocious offense, a mediocre pitching staff, or … hey, the Brewers might just win this thing.

What nobody wants to think about.

The ulnar collateral ligament. We've lost something like 80 of them – major and minor leagues – since the first of the year. Lefties, righties, catchers, shortstops, the odd outfielder; they've all fallen to the scourge of the 2014 season. The next one could change a division race. The next one could change everything. Or not.

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