NEW YORK – As Detroit laments the loss of Jeremy Bonderman and Arizona tries to fill the hole left by Orlando Hudson and St. Louis finally figures out why Chris Duncan has looked so awful and San Diego sighs at the inevitable Milton Bradley injury – as the rest of baseball frets, the vise of September squeezing so tight it makes the eyeballs hurt – the New York Yankees and New York Mets float along, seemingly immune to pratfalls.
Oh, there are the occasional blunders, like the Yankees' series loss to Tampa Bay and the Mets' blanking last week in Cincinnati. And yet both teams find themselves comfortably ahead in their respective races – American League wild card and National League East – and as October beckons, as much as those everywhere else in the U.S. might cringe, New York is positioning itself as the nerve center for postseason baseball.
The Yankees have won five consecutive, the Mets eight of 10. Alex Rodriguez is hitting .533 with eight home runs and 15 RBIs in September, and if he continues on this home run binge, 61 is within his reach. Moises Alou is hitting .462 with an on-base-plus-slugging of 1.346, just slightly better than outfield-mate Carlos Beltran's 1.275. Joba Chamberlain remains unscored upon, and Pedro Martinez threw five shutout innings Sunday.
"Good teams, they can smell it," Mets manager Willie Randolph said, "and I would venture to say we know what time it is now."
Both teams, with some in-season tinkering, have built themselves for playoff runs. The Yankees overhauled their bullpen and are reliant on rookie changeup specialist Edwar Ramirez and Chamberlain, the 21-year-old who looks like he took a hit off a tire pump. On the night A-Rod hit two home runs in the same inning, Chamberlain earned his first major-league victory, becoming the ninth New York rookie to do so this season.
"That's pretty incredible," manager Joe Torre said, "especially for the Yankees."
The Mets, meanwhile, have soldiered through their own injuries to return intact and stacked – both their lineup (David Wright, Beltran and Alou in the 3-, 4- and 5-holes) and their rotation (Martinez, Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, John Maine and the best No. 5 starter in the game, Oliver Perez).
And still, for both teams remains the specter of last season, the nagging migraine that not even Aleve could alleviate. The Yankees' pain ended swiftly: Detroit extinguished them in the first round. The Mets' lingered: Losing in the seventh game of the NL Championship Series to a home run from the unlikeliest source, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.
While both teams showed signs of wear this season, the Yankees with their abominable first half and the Mets at about the trade deadline, they persevered enough to keep their series this weekend from being do-or-die. Sure, the Yankees don't want to embarrass themselves in Boston, and the Mets can bury Philadelphia with a sweep, but neither result is imperative. Even with Detroit's recent surge, the Yankees are four games up, and the Mets could blow the weekend and still own a three-game lead.
Though, as Detroit and Arizona and St. Louis and San Diego – all participants in meaningful September baseball and recipients of its heartburn – will warn, what seems right one minute is anything but the next.
"That's why you need to come back in October," Beltran said. "Everything will be set by then. And I have a feeling it's going to be good."
Arizona: The Diamondbacks began their five-game winning streak by beating Chris Young and Jake Peavy, then swept the Cardinals in three close games over the weekend that showed off their bullpen. Over 14 1/3 innings, Diamondbacks relievers gave up two runs, and closer Jose Valverde recorded his 43rd, 44th and 45th saves. The recently added Bob Wickman threw a scoreless inning Sunday, and Arizona can separate itself for good with its next 12 games against San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Curtis Granderson: His 20-20-20-20 (doubles, triples, homers, stolen bases) got all of the ink, but it doesn't do justice to how incredible a season Granderson has had. The 26-year-old leadoff hitter's .562 slugging percentage is higher than that of Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Vladimir Guerrero and David Wright, and he has cut down his strikeouts from 29.2 percent of his at-bats last year to 23.9 percent. If that's not enough, he's hitting .455 and slugging .848 in September, with five of eight games K-free.
Milwaukee: Never can the Brewers vacillate between the depths of the baseball world and its alpine peaks. Four wins in five games has them back atop the National League Central, the spot they have occupied most of the season. Saturday's comeback from an early three-run deficit at Cincinnati was particularly edifying for Milwaukee, which has seen its bullpen lose 27 games, the third-most in the big leagues. Prince Fielder is raking. Ryan Braun seems to have kicked a mini-slump with five home runs in seven games. The Brewers look good. Though that always needs a caveat: for now.
St. Louis: Is the Cardinals' schedule starting to wear on them? A pair of one-run losses and a two-run loss to Arizona put them back under .500 and three games behind first-place Milwaukee. Now comes a makeup game in Chicago, a trip to Cincinnati, a four-game eliminator at home against the Cubs that includes a doubleheader and, to end the season, 14 games in 14 days. St. Louis needs to take a deep breath, though if it inhales too deeply, it could crumble under the weight.
Japanese stars: The two biggest names from Japan have been perhaps the two worst players in baseball this month. Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui is 2 for 24 in September with no RBIs and a .083 slugging percentage, the second-worst among hitters with at least 25 plate appearances. Just as bad: Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose ERA has ballooned to 4.44 – just below the league average of 4.55 – by giving up 15 runs in eight innings for a 16.88 ERA, lowest for pitchers with eight innings or more.
San Diego: The good news: Jake Peavy pitches twice this week on regular rest. The bad news: The Padres are closer to the Dodgers, who are only 2½ games behind them in the wild-card standings, than the first-place Diamondbacks, who own a three-game lead. The good news: San Diego's pitching remains among the best in baseball, holding hitters to a .726 OPS in September. The bad news: The hitting remains futile too, with a .710 OPS and just 33 runs in eight games.
SKEPTICAL HOMETOWN COLUMNIST OF THE WEEK
Bob Verdi, Chicago Tribune
Amid the Cubs' latest floundering, with series losses to Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, Verdi more or less assumed the Cubs wouldn't be doing anything of consequence this season and looked forward to next year, when they could mark what would certainly be the most awkward centennial of all time.
"(I)f the Cubs don't happen to run the table next month, they will celebrate the anniversary of their 1908 champions in 2008 – if indeed, 'celebrate' and 'anniversary' are appropriate.
"Should the Cubs fall as they usually do before the autumn leaves, they will be compelled to mark the occasion next season. If they don't, they will be accused of ignoring their history of futility. Question is, how do you make a 99-year rebuilding plan out to be just one of those things?"
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
Philadelphia at New York, Friday through Sunday
Jimmy Rollins is learning that words can come back to haunt, a notion the Mets have every intent to cement this weekend. When Rollins claimed the Phillies would oust New York from the NL East mountaintop this season, he did so assuming Kyle Kendrick and J.D. Durbin wouldn't be in their rotation. And with the Mets' lead a comfortable six games, that, more than anything, makes this series full of intrigue: In spite of the injuries, in spite of Charlie Manuel's occasional dunderheaded move and in spite of Tom Gordon and Brett Myers doing their best spud and dud impersonations, the Phillies have hung around. They are 9-6 against the Mets, and Rollins' on-base-plus-slugging in those games is 1.121. He's got three more games – and three more weeks – to hold up his end, even if his team hasn't held its.
We wondered which spot in the batting order is most important in the lineup of playoff-contending teams. Leadoff, which is integral to scoring runs? No. 7, which would show lineup depth? The answer was the most obvious: the cleanup spot, in which seven of the top eight spots are held by teams in the running. The Yankees are an obvious first, with Alex Rodriguez occupying it, and Detroit is a clear second, with his MVP hanger-on, Magglio Ordonez. Next to that, though, there are some surprises – including a team that's dead last.
New York (AL)
Los Angeles (NL)
New York (NL)
Los Angeles (AL)
PLAYOFF ODDS REPORT
So begins the paring. Seattle, at 47.42 percent two weeks ago, is gone, as is Atlanta, failing to meet the 5 percent threshold. The AL is just about set, as New York holds a four-game lead in the wild-card standings and, following this week's series against Boston, faces Baltimore six times. In the NL … seriously, who knows? The Mets are all but in. Aside from that, it's tenuous, with the Brewers and Diamondbacks both jumping more than 25 percent and the Padres and Cubs falling nearly 17 percent. Three weeks remain. Everything will hash itself out – hopefully, in true pennant-race fashion.
(Last week's percentages in parentheses.)
Boston Red Sox: 99.99 percent (99.93 percent)
Los Angeles Angels: 99.56 percent (98.94 percent)
Cleveland Indians: 97.31 percent (90.96 percent)
New York Yankees*: 85.52 percent (67.98 percent)
Detroit Tigers: 14.37 percent (26.43 percent)
New York Mets: 99.33 percent (96.83 percent)
Arizona Diamondbacks: 82.72 percent (55.62 percent)
Milwaukee Brewers: 55.71 percent (27.07 percent)
San Diego Padres*: 55.45 percent (72.79 percent)
Chicago Cubs: 35.88 percent (55.06 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies: 24.08 percent (31.85 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 23.03 percent (23.89 percent)
Colorado Rockies: 11.75 percent (11.82 percent)
St. Louis Cardinals: 8.76 percent (19.74 percent)
* – Wild card leader: More than 83 percent of the Yankees' chances come from the wild card, which means nearly five of every six simulations end with them in the postseason. While the NL remains a bit more digestible this week – San Diego, which actually leads the wild card, does so in the odds as well – so many teams are hanging around that it's a fool's errand to interpret the standings for anything more than they are: impervious to even soothsayers.
"I think the next four starts I'll do the best to be Carlos Zambrano, and the one thing I started today was with my hair." – Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, accenting his third-person reference with one that an 0-5, 8.29 ERA stretch had to do with new blond highlights.
Maybe they did. In his first start since trimming them, Zambrano gave up one run in six innings Sunday.