To start anywhere else would be irresponsible, because the panic is back in New York. There are close to a dozen great story lines to fill the final week of the season, and they'll get their due after considering the possibility of New York Mets Meltdown, Version 2.0.
No, this isn't a bigger and better edition, as nothing could match the 2007 Mets' bungling of a seven-game lead with 17 games remaining in the season. It's just the enormity of it potentially happening for a second straight season. The Mets gutted their farm system to trade for Johan Santana, gave him $135 million to be their ace, fired their manager halfway through the year and went through a Jerry Manuel-led resurgence that saw them in first place every day but one from Aug. 14 to Sept. 15.
Now the Mets are 1½ games back of Philadelphia, victimized Sunday by a bullpen that blew an eighth-inning lead. The Mets had ridden halfway decent relief pitching to first place, actually, though the team's comfort level with its bullpen rested somewhere between boxspring without mattress and concrete floor. It is their weakness, and if they're able to hold off the Milwaukee Brewers for the wild card or pass the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East, it will be their weakness.
Winning the division is tantamount, of course, as it helps avoid a first-round hoedown with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are one win or a Phillies loss away from clinching home-field advantage in the NL, which puts them in quite an interesting position of power this week.
Were Lou Piniella the scheming type – and, well, he's been around long enough, in the game and in Chicago, to understand that a little bit of maneuvering is encouraged – he could influence the entire NL playoff scene. If the Cubs prefer playing the Phillies, Piniella could cobble together a lineup of Micah Hoffpauir, Casey McGehee, Koyie Hill, Daryle Ward and others for the four-game series against the Mets starting Monday, then end the regular season against Milwaukee with his regular lineup. Mets win the division; Phillies get the wild card; Brewers out. Or they may prefer the Mets to the Phillies. Perhaps they would like the Brewers in, if they believe playing the Los Angeles Dodgers – or Arizona Diamondbacks – is a better bet.
Strategy is important, and it will come into play nearly as much in the American League, where the Los Angeles Angels get to make an enormous decision once they clinch home-field advantage: whether to start their first-round series on Oct. 1 or Oct. 2.
Doesn't seem like a big deal, huh? Well, if they choose the first series, the Angels are scheduled for Game 4 on Oct. 6, which brings the Game 1 starter back on full rest. If they choose the other series, the Game 4 starter is the team's No. 4 starter.
So, depending on whom the Angels draw, the decision could be imperative. As inclined as manager Mike Scioscia would be to take the first option and start John Lackey in Games 1 and 4 with Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana between, the prospect of facing Josh Beckett – if healthy, the Boston Red Sox's No. 1 – is daunting. At 28, he is already one of the best postseason pitchers in history.
Because Los Angeles' starting-pitching depth isn't quite as advantageous against Tampa Bay, the team Boston is fighting for the AL East crown, the Oct. 1 option would make more sense if the Rays gave away the division and settled for the wild card.
Whichever team does end up in the wild-card spot is not in a desirable position. The Angels have baseball's best record. The Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, the two teams going head to head for the AL Central title – and it's been a bit like a couple of rams who, when trying to bump heads, lock horns and get caught in an ugly tangle – face the winner of the AL East, which certainly wouldn't present the same challenge as Los Angeles.
Soon enough everything will flesh itself out. We'll know who's healthy (John Maine?) and who's ready to contribute (David Price?), who's going to win the Cy Young Awards (Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum) and the league MVPs (?, ?), whose job is on the line (Doug Melvin?) and whose contract extension discussions might stop dead (Omar Minaya).
The real race, though, is the one for Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State right-hander who struck out 23 in one April game and should be the No. 1 pick in the draft next season. The hometown Padres seem to be playing themselves out of the Strasburg sweepstakes with three straight wins and just 95 losses. The Washington Nationals, the yearlong favorite, have dropped five straight to hit 98 defeats. The Seattle Mariners are this year's reverse Colorado Rockies, with 11 straight losses, 98 in all and one more game than the Nationals remaining.
Which leaves us with a final-week gamut: teams that want to win and others that wouldn't mind losing, home-field advantage, potential manipulation, celebrations and disappointments – every kind of implication. On Sunday, barring complete oddness, baseball will have its eight playoff teams. And everyone will start over again, knowing that October is nothing like September or any of the months that precede it.
First basemen: They're expected to hit, so this should be no surprise, but the sorts of weeks put together by Ryan Howard, Carlos Peña, Prince Fielder, Carlos Delgado and Mark Teixeira were stunning in their own way. Howard and Peña leapt toward the front of their MVP races, Fielder and Delgado tried to keep their teams in their races and Teixeira – well, he's not involved in any kind of a race except with himself, where he tries to prove worthy of a $200 million contract this offseason.
Arizona: Florida deserves an honorable mention for also-ran comebacks, though two straight losses to Philadelphia killed the Marlins' chances of a wild-card miracle run. The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, have won six of seven, with Dan Haren finding himself, Max Scherzer dealing and Brandon Webb starting twice in the final seven games. The Dodgers get San Diego and San Francisco in their last week, however, so making up 2½ games makes an Arizona title unlikely.
Back end of Philadelphia's bullpen: One more unscathed week and Brad Lidge will finish the season without a blown save. He's already got 40 saves to go along with astounding numbers: 67 1/3 innings, 89 strikeouts and a .191 batting average against. As good as Lidge has been in September, Ryan Madson, a vital cog in the setup crew, has been even better: no earned runs in 11 1/3 innings with seven hits and 15 strikeouts. Along with Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero, Scott Eyre, Clay Condrey and Rudy Seanez, the Phillies boast one of baseball's best bullpens.
Three down (plus bonus one)
Milwaukee Brewers: The difficulty in staying positive, as interim manager Dale Sveum implores his team to do, is that it requires being positive in the first place. And nothing the Brewers have done – from blowing leads in games to losing their wild-card advantage – so qualifies. Perhaps Sunday's win will give the Brewers a strong push into their final six games and an offseason of enormous change.
AL Central: This is as much a testament to Cleveland's comeback as the White Sox and Twins' failings, but only Sunday – the same day the Indians climbed over .500 – were they officially eliminated. Though Chicago has wrested control of the division and can eliminate Minnesota with a three-game sweep, it's unlikely to happen in Minneapolis, where the Twins are 49-26. Which means this race, September mediocrity its hallmark, will end in the final weekend.
Twins rookie pitchers: Seriously, what happened to Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn this week? Perkins couldn't even get out of the first inning against Tampa Bay in a game his teammates came back to win, and Blackburn followed with an equally atrocious start against the Rays. Even worse news: If the Twins do make the playoffs and don't catch the "B" schedule, which will allow two lucky teams to start their No. 1 in Game 4 on full rest, Blackburn will have to pitch.
Syracuse football: No one lit bottle rockets or overturned cars after the 30-21 victory against Northeastern, a winless team that isn't even among the 119 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. "We ain't had a win in, I don't know how long," Syracuse running back Curtis Brinkley said. "You said 11 months? That's ridiculous."
Couldn't have put it better.
Here are the standouts of Sept. 24-30, 2007, with the best numbers from those in contention this season:
|John Maine||7 2/3||1||0||0||2||14|
|Joe Nathan||3 1/3||3||0||0||6||5||3|
Skeptical Hometown Columnist of the Week
Since all of New York's cynics were waxing poetic at Yankee Stadium, let's hand the reins this week to New York Daily News blogger Jon Lewin to deliver a dead-on assessment of the Mets' bullpen – and particularly Manuel's handling of it:
Maybe it's not just the bullpen. Maybe it's the way Jerry Manuel is handling the bullpen. Just because these guys aren't good enough to get both lefties and righties out doesn't mean it's reasonable to start going to matchups with nine outs still to go.
For one thing, it's a strategy that will only work with the expanded rosters, so it doesn't set you up for the postseason. Not that the Mets should be worrying about the postseason right about now. And even if they get there, the bullpen will be burned out if it's not already.
If the strategy worked, it would be worth it to burn out the bullpen to have a chance at October. But the strategy isn’t working. While Sunday's loss to Atlanta will be seen as another complete bullpen meltdown, three out of the six relievers – Brian Stokes and Ricardo Rincon in the seventh and Pedro Feliciano in the eighth – actually did their jobs. But thanks to the matchups strategy, Manuel is asking six relievers to all do their jobs. That’s the sort of thing you ask a good bullpen to do, not a mediocre one.
Playoff odds report
The boldest prediction to come out of Accuscore's supercomputer this week is the confidence it has in Philadelphia, which holds a 1½-game lead in its division and three games in the wild card. In 10,000 simulations the Phillies made the postseason nearly 9,500 times, more than any NL team not named the Cubs. And the Brewers, who two weeks ago were at 93.4 percent, have dropped to less than a third likely to make it. The AL is set save for the Central, and the White Sox are clocking in at almost 2-to-1 favorites.
Last week's percentages are in parentheses.
Los Angeles Angels 100 percent (100 percent)
Tampa Bay Rays 100 percent (98.8 percent)
Boston Red Sox* 98.2 percent (96.5 percent)
Chicago White Sox 65.7 percent (53.6 percent)
Minnesota Twins 34.4 percent (48.0 percent)
Chicago Cubs 100 percent (99.5 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies 94.7 percent (60.9 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers 92.4 percent (94.4 percent)
New York Mets* 57.6 percent (60.8 percent)
Milwaukee Brewers 30.9 percent (53.8 percent)
Arizona Diamondbacks 7.6 percent (NR)
* – Wild-card leader
"I'm starting my new profession – turning vodka into urine." – Reds pitcher Kent Mercker, who, in spite of being nowhere near the pennant race, deserves acknowledgement for uttering the best line of the year to Hall of Fame reporter Hal McCoy on his plans if he retires after this season.